This is the fifth of a six-part series by The Bellingham Herald examining Whatcom County’s vehicle crash fatalities and how every driver can play a role in reducing those numbers.
The word “accident” isn’t in the workplace vocabulary for Doug Dahl, the Region 11 manager for the Washington Traffic and Safety Commission Target Zero program — the word simply is too vague for his purposes when he’s talking about crashes and fatalities on Whatcom County’s roads.
“A real accident would be a tree falling on a car or a sinkhole opening up in a road — things that you couldn’t have set out before your drive and said, ‘I need to prepare for this happening,’” Dahl told The Bellingham Herald in a September interview. “Ninety-four percent of crashes are humans making a mistake — a bad choice. If you could have taken an action to prevent something, but by your inattention or your negligence or impairment or your deciding to drive faster than you should and that causes a crash, that’s really not an accident.
“’Accident’ presumes there was nothing you could do. I think ‘crash’ or ‘collision’ don’t presume anything. It doesn’t say somebody was at fault, but ‘accident’ implies nobody was at fault.”
So then, what’s most at fault in Whatcom County’s fatal traffic collisions?
The Washington State Department of Transportation Crash Data Portal tracks four high-risk behaviors involved in crashes — driving under the influence, driving drowsy, inattention and speed.
According to the data, speeding was the most deadly activity for Whatcom County drivers, as it was involved in 43 percent (49) of the 114 fatal accidents logged in the county between Jan. 1, 2010, and Oct. 31, 2018. That rate is substantially higher than the state average of 31.7 percent for the same period — a fact that Dahl said was partially attributable to the county’s high number of rural roads.
“When you drive faster than the speed limit, everything happens faster — you don’t have as much time to react,” Dahl said. “But speeding has become such an accepted practice in our society.
“I read a study that was done in Montana that asked how many people speed, and most people overestimate those breaking the rules consistently. If they’re overestimating, then they’re more likely to conform to what they see as the cultural perception. I want to encourage people to realize if they’re doing the right thing, that’s actually the dominant driving behavior. If you’re violating the law, you’re in the margins.”
Whatcom County also outpaced the state in the percentage of fatal crashes where alcohol or drug use was involved, according to the WSDOT data, as at least one driver was impaired in one-third (38) of all collisions resulting in death, as opposed to 27.9 percent on the state level.
“What we’ve really seen an increase of recently in Whatcom County and across the state is impairment by poly-drug use, such as alcohol and marijuana together,” Dahl told The Herald. “The Traffic and Safety Commission is doing research into what types of campaigns poly-drug users might respond to, because driving is really dangerous when you’re impaired by more than one drug.”
The other hot-button form of impairment, of course, is distracted driving, especially since Washington state enacted a law last year allowing law enforcement to ticket drivers talking or using their cell phones while driving.
And the WSDOT statistics show Whatcom County drivers have problems focusing on the road, as 21.9 percent of all fatal crashes involved inattention, including seven of 20 fatal wrecks in 2017. That’s slightly above the state average of 20.8 percent.
But Dahl said don’t let those numbers fool you — distracted driving is substantially more dangerous.
“Distracted driving, like drowsy driving, is severely under reported,” Dahl told The Herald. “With alcohol or other impairments, there is a blood test you can administer. With speeding, they can do a crash reconstruction and say at this point this part was going this fast. With inattention and drowsiness, that’s self-reporting. You could theoretically subpoena somebody’s phone, but if you don’t have an indicator that would justify the probable cause to get the warrant for the phone, then you just have that self-reported information.”
Lane departure accounted for more than half of Whatcom’s fatal accidents, according to the WSDOT data, with 43.9 percent of all fatal accidents (50) resulting from running off the road and another 10.5 percent resulting in colliding head-on with another vehicle. Intersection collisions, meanwhile, resulted in 19.3 percent of the county’s traffic fatalities.
“That’s an indicator of the types of roads we have here,” Dahl said. “If you were to go to Eastern Washington, I think you’d find your off-road and lane-departure crashes would be even higher than ours. If you look at Seattle, I’ll bet their intersection crash rates are higher.”