A pilot project from Clark County Public Works reflects a problem that is pervasive throughout Washington and, indeed, the nation. After a worker was struck recently by a reckless driver, the department is launching a program to promote safe driving.
“Our road crews are the backbone of our ability to maintain a safe and efficient transportation network,” Deputy County Engineer Jeremy Provenzola said in a press release. “They put their lives on the line every time they step into the road.”
From 2020 to 2021, according to the Federal Highway Administration, work zone fatalities increased 10.8 percent. Unfortunately, similar problems are evident elsewhere on the roads.
In 2020, despite COVID-related lockdown orders that reduced driving, there was an increase in vehicle fatalities across the nation. That uptick reversed years of declining fatality rates, and the increase has not abated in the past two years.
In 1966, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 5.50 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled on American roads. What followed were decades of gradually declining fatality rates. Improved vehicle safety; lower speed limits; laws requiring the use of seat belts; and stronger legislation and attention toward preventing impaired driving all combined to reduce vehicle fatalities.
By 2019, there were 1.10 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled — 20 percent of the rate from five decades earlier. The change represents how a conscientious population and commonsense laws can work for the benefit of the public.
Since the arrival of COVID-19, some of that progress has been lost. From 2020-22, the death rate on U.S. roads hovered around 1.35 for every 100 million miles. That reflects, in part, the breakdown of societal norms that have accompanied the pandemic.
“It’s devastating,” Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told National Public Radio. “Our roadways were turned into racetracks. And excessive speed really went up through the roof. And more people were driving while impaired.”
Other experts also cite excessive speed and more prevalent impairment for the increase in fatalities. In Washington, 745 vehicle deaths were reported in 2022 — the highest total since 1990.
“During 2017 through 2021, 32 percent of fatal crashes in Washington involved alcohol-positive drivers,” said Shelly Baldwin, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “Alcohol impairment, whether alone or in combination with other drugs, continues to be a leading risk factor in traffic fatalities.”
Some of that can be traced to the legalization of recreational marijuana. Like alcohol, marijuana leads to impairment but is more difficult to detect and to measure. Added to the distracting effect of cellphones and in-car devices, it adds up to more dangerous roads.
Because of these relatively new threats and a decrease in driver attentiveness, some new strategies are necessary to educate the public. That is the purpose of the Clark County Public Works campaign, which will test strategies for sharing work zone safety messages — including a billboard, social media posts, and internet, radio and newspaper ads.
Education is important for reducing traffic fatalities; so is possible legislation. Lawmakers this year approved a bill strengthening requirements for driver’s education but declined to approve a reduction in the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers. Both legislative decisions were wise, but they should not preclude future efforts to improve traffic safety.