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2021 was the deadliest on Washington’s roads in 15 years, confusing experts

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As Washington fell silent at the start of the pandemic, Staci Hoff figured that at least that would mean fewer road deaths in 2020. She was wrong.

Then, as cars began to return in 2021, she was hoping the carnage might slow down as congestion increased and speeds slowed. She was still wrong.

Washington ended 2021 with more fatal and serious car crashes than in 15 years. In the wake of a particularly deadly 2020, the continued rise is a frustrating and increasingly confusing trend unfolding nationwide. Experts cannot point to just one reason.

“We’ve talked about 2020 to the death, but we’re at the end of 2021 and it was a lot worse,” said Hoff, research director for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “The increases we see in very serious accidents are not decreasing. “

Washington had 540 fatal accidents in the year, which killed more than 600 people, according to data from the Washington State Department of Transportation. Since 2006, the numbers have not been so high. In 118 of the fatal accidents of the year, a cyclist or a pedestrian was killed.

In 2021, 2,411 other crashes resulted in serious injury, the highest number since 2006 and 16% more than in 2020.

Serious and fatal alcohol and drug crashes remained high in 2021, with a 25% jump from 2019 to 2020. Speed ​​also continued to play a disproportionate role after climbing nearly 18% in 2020.

In Seattle, 31 people were killed in car crashes in 2021, according to preliminary data from the Seattle Department of Transportation. It’s also the highest number since 2006. Jim Curtain, director of project development at SDOT, said 19 of those deaths were pedestrians, and nearly half were hit and run. The city has also seen an increase in impaired driving, Curtain said.

“It’s absolutely disheartening,” said John Milton, director of transportation safety and systems analysis for WSDOT. “It’s our job to reduce fatal and serious accidents. I think of it like “what if it was a member of my family over there?” “”

Counterintuitively, the total number of accidents was lower in 2020 and 2021 than it had been at least in the previous 15 years, a sign that the proportion of accidents with catastrophic consequences is peaking.

For Hoff and other researchers, there is no single explanation why this year has been worse than the last, except that the conditions set out in 2020 have not receded.

“Nothing changes drastically” from last year, Hoff said. “We had a slight increase in depreciation, we had a small increase in speed in terms of factor. There is more going on, but nothing is motivating him. “

At the start of the pandemic, anecdotal reports from state soldiers and road workers suggested that driving behavior had become more extreme – a hunch confirmed by the increase in speed-related crashes and so-called ” Aggressive drivers “. As the roads emptied, drivers could more easily reach all three digits on their speedometers.

Combined with an increase in alcohol and drug use, crashes that might have been moderate in 2019 turned serious or fatal in 2020.

As traffic returns, the picture for 2021 is less obvious. Speed ​​and distraction are almost certainly at the heart of the trend, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. But there is another more nebulous cause that is even more difficult to track.

“We have a nervous society,” he said. “When you’re in the big metal box of a car, you have a tremendous ability to express your frustrations with both the accelerator and the brake. “

Not just a statistic

It took years for Paul Ossorio to admit that he couldn’t have prevented his brother’s death. That’s what’s so different about losing someone in a car crash, he said.

“You feel guilty, not for killing them, but as if you let their lives slip through your fingers,” he said.

Over 30 years ago, a drunk driver punched his brother, Todd, 20, who was riding his bike to the store to buy a CD set and Frank Sinatra biography for their mother’s birthday. Now, decades later, an increase in the number of road fatalities is more than a statistic for Ossorio.

“Each number represents, of course, that someone has died, but it also represents countless people affected,” he said. “And that’s really the number.”

The 6% increase in serious and fatal accidents in Washington from 2019 to 2020 was close to the country’s average that year, which saw a national peak of 7%, according to the National Safety Council.

Maine, Arkansas and Washington, DC saw the biggest jumps, each over 30%. Rhode Island saw a 24% increase.

The council has yet to release its final tally for 2021, but preliminary data released in September showed a 16% increase for the first six months of the year. Washington’s rise was about 1% – a smaller increase but noticeable nonetheless.

“The alarming trend in Washington State really highlights the fact that we need to think about how we make sure that if someone makes a mistake, it is possible to survive,” said Dongho Chang, engineer at WSDOT state traffic.

Hallenbeck of UW said decades of design decisions led to this moment. Straight and wide roads, combined with quieter and larger cars, suppress sensory cues for drivers, making speed easier. The pandemic has focused on the most dangerous parts of these decisions.

“All of our senses tell us to drive fast unless there is a lot of traffic ahead,” he said. “When we pulled it out for the pandemic, everyone drove fast. They were going fast, partly because they had no idea how fast they were going, and partly because they could. So with acceleration, a lot of bad things happen.

At the same time, the cause of the increase in 2021 is proving more complicated to pin down than in 2020. Traffic levels are almost back to 2019 levels and the Washington State Patrol has had less contact with “aggressive drivers. “.

But the stressors of 2020 – isolation, uncertainty, fear – remain. And with them comes an environment that is always conducive to high speeds, Hoff said, so that “instead of something that could have resulted in an injury in 2019 or 2020, it’s death in 2021”.

Crash prevention

Since the start of the pandemic, police have reduced speed-related traffic checks by a third, according to data from the Washington State Patrol. Sgt. Darren Wright said coronavirus precautions are still being taken, which means officers are less proactive.

“They were evaluating and trying to figure out how to keep their officers safe,” said Shelly Baldwin, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “And people kind of knew that maybe they weren’t going to get caught doing the kinds of things that they would’ve been caught doing.”

For some advocates of safe streets, however, law enforcement should come second to design, especially at a time when police involvement in roadside checks is undergoing a new lease of life. exam.

“Preventive measures are better than punitive measures,” said Laura Goodfellow, an activist for safer streets. “I prefer to have a road where it is difficult and unnatural to go fast. It really doesn’t help anyone to get tickets.

Milton of the WSDOT said the state is constantly looking for weak spots in the system. He pointed to busy streets with traffic lights that drivers ignore, like Aurora Avenue and Lake City Way, both of which were among Seattle’s deadliest streets, as they have been in the past. The state is working to install more roundabouts, which can reduce fatal accidents at intersections.

In Seattle, council member Andrew Lewis pushed through a small increase in the city’s commercial parking tax to fund safety measures in the city.

“It is not enough money to solve the problem; it’s enough money to make a difference, ”he said.

Seattle also recently installed new traffic cameras, added more bike lanes downtown, and redesigned some dangerous streets like Rainier Avenue. The SDOT curtain said the city will soon partner with WSDOT to make improvements to Aurora Avenue by adding more signposted crosswalks and building sidewalks on both sides of the street. He also said the city plans to receive money from the $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill enacted by President Joe Biden in November, of which about $ 5 billion is earmarked for grants for the security.

But looking ahead, it’s hard to say for sure that the trend will reverse quickly.

“If there had been some easy fixes, trust me, the engineering community would have done it,” Hallenbeck said. “But there isn’t. There are no easy solutions because we cannot get away from human behavior. “