Goal of eliminating traffic deaths proves difficult

County is steadily reducing collision rate

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Clark County drivers are getting in progressively fewer traffic collisions in recent years, according to state data. When it comes to deaths in those crashes, however, no trend is clear.

The number of collisions in Clark County fell from 5,054 in 2006 to 4,098 in 2010, according to the most recent data available from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The number of fatalities for each of these years, however, was erratic: 23 in 2006, 31 in 2007, 15 in 2008, 14 in 2009 and 24 in 2010. The number of injuries fell steadily from 2,612 in 2006 to 2,194 in 2009 but rebounded to 2,274 in 2010.

Why the fluctuating numbers?

Marion Swendsen, the Target Zero project manager for the Clark County Sheriff's Office, said many factors influence fatality rates, but driver behavior is significant.

Distracted driving or multitasking while driving is a big problem, Swendsen said, and was made a higher priority when officials updated the Target Zero safety plan. She said the highest fatality rates are among drivers who are impaired, speeding, inattentive and inexperienced.

"Right now, our young drivers, between about 15 and 30, are the ones who are getting into more serious collisions," she said.

Younger drivers are more likely to be distracted by other people in their vehicle or by communication devices.

Target Zero, adopted in 2000 and updated in 2010, is a strategic highway safety plan with a goal to eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2030.

The state's fatality rate has decreased from 1.12 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2006 to 0.80 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2010, according to a WSDOT report, although the numbers for certain areas may stay flat or even increase from year to year.

"You have to take into account all of the factors, from education to enforcement to engineering to emergency medical services. All those things are making driving safer," Swendsen said.

Advances in automobile technology and new traffic safety laws, for instance, have made driving safer, Swendsen said. Although ticket fines have remained fairly stable over the last couple of years, they've been enhanced to meet changes in driver behaviors, she said.

It was illegal to text while driving or use a mobile phone without a hands-free device after state cell phone laws passed in 2008; but it was considered a secondary offense, so officers could pull drivers over only if they were committing another traffic offense. In 2010 the law was changed to make it primary offense punishable by a $124 fine.

Swendsen points out that even navigational devices, such as a GPS or Google Maps app for a smart phone, meant to help drivers get from one point to another, can be a huge distraction.

"If you take your attention off road for a second, you can find yourself in trouble," Swendsen said.

Budget constraints limit the number of patrols and educational programs that are possible. Money for these programs comes from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, which is supported by the federal transportation bill.

"You can try to get out there with a lot of education to the public about driving habits that might impair you as a driver. Unfortunately, a lot of those factors cannot be changed," Swendsen said.

In a 2010 presentation, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission predicted 360 Washington state traffic deaths for 2030 if trends at the time continued. Despite the uncertain numbers -- in both fatality rates and state finances -- will Washington be able to meet the Target Zero goal?

"Yes, I think so. It's going to take effort on everyone's part to make that happen," Swendsen said. "You as a driver have to take the initiative to change your behavior."

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; twitter.com/col_cops; patty.hastings@columbian.com.