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News / Clark County News

Traffic fatalities jump in Clark County and Washington — driven by speed, alcohol, drugs, distraction

Speed was involved in half of the Clark County fatalities in 2022

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: August 9, 2023, 6:08am
6 Photos
Detective Bethany Lau of the Clark County Sheriff's Office talks to a driver she pulled over for speeding in Salmon Creek. The driver was going 46 mph in a 35 mph zone and was let off with a verbal warning.
Detective Bethany Lau of the Clark County Sheriff's Office talks to a driver she pulled over for speeding in Salmon Creek. The driver was going 46 mph in a 35 mph zone and was let off with a verbal warning. (ELAYNA YUSSEN for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

SALMON CREEK — As the cars whizzed by, radar clocked their speed: 43, 34, 41 mph.

Then a Honda Fit going 46 mph in a 35 zone passed by, and a static wail from the speed radar got higher — an auditory cue: The higher the speed, the higher the pitch — causing Clark County Sheriff’s Office Detective Bethany Lau to lean slightly in, like a bird readying itself to swoop down to capture its prey.

Lau flicks on her patrol car’s lights, cuts a hard 180 and steps on it. The Honda’s driver knew he’d been caught and turned into a nearby parking lot. The sequence took about 10 seconds.

It was the second of three cars on Northeast 119th Street that Lau pulled over in about 10 minutes, all within 1.5 miles of each other and going at least 10 mph over the speed limit. She gave all three warnings.

“I need you to slow down,” she told them. “A vehicular homicide just happened (near here) because of speed.”

Lau, who is in the Traffic Homicide Unit, investigates the aftermath of fatal and serious injury crashes. In Washington, the 750 traffic fatalities last year was the highest in a generation. In Clark County, there were 37 traffic fatalities.

A 32-year high

Traffic fatalities have hovered around 550 per year between 2015-2020 in Washington. That number jumped in 2021, when fatalities rose to 675 and again in 2022, when it increased to 750.

The most common factors in fatal crashes are what you’d expect: drugs, speeding, distracted driving and alcohol.

Over the past decade, 36 percent of fatal crashes involved a drug-positive driver, 32 percent involved speeding, 23 percent involved distracted driving and 22 percent involved an alcohol-impaired driver, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission’s preliminary 2022 crash data dashboard.

More males are involved in fatal crashes than females. Those aged 21-25 who were involved in fatal crashes were more likely to be speeding or alcohol- or drug-impaired.

One thing to note: Although the state data suggests that fatal crashes involving an alcohol- or drug-impaired driver decreased in 2022, the true number is likely higher. This is because of the backlog processing toxicology tests, according to Jesamie Peters, Region 6 Target Zero manager. A more reliable count will be released in October, and 2022 numbers will be finalized in January 2024.


Nationally, roughly 42,000 people were killed on U.S. roadways in 2022, fewer than in 2021, but more than the 39,000 in 2019. There were fewer traffic fatalities in Washington than the national average.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s early 2022 estimate released in April, Washington’s 2022 fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles of travel was 1.26. The national average was 1.35.

In 2021 Washington’s rate was 1.13.

Oregon’s 2022 rate was 1.74. Region 10’s rate, including Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Alaska, was 1.41, the fourth highest of the Department of Transportation’s 10 regions. The three states with the closest population to Washington — Arizona, Tennessee and Massachusetts — had rates of 1.76, 1.63 and 0.71, respectively.

Clark County

With 37 fatalities last year, Clark County had the sixth most traffic fatalities in Washington in 2022, behind King, 154; Pierce, 93; Snohomish, 62; Yakima, 48; and Spokane, 42. Clark County has the fifth-highest population in the state.

Speeding was involved in half of the Clark County fatalities, up from 36 percent between 2013 and 2021. Complete data about drug- and alcohol-impaired drivers will not be available until October.

Between 2015 and 2019, traffic fatalities in Clark County averaged 26.2 a year with a median of 26. Since 2020, there have been roughly 40 per year. In spite of the fluctuations of traffic fatalities in Clark County, fatal crashes on streets within the city of Vancouver have hovered around six over the past decade.

“I believe our emphasis on improving the safety of our roads in the past 5-10 years is slowing the pace of crashes on our city streets,” said Streets and Transportation Manager Ryan Lopossa in an email. “But our work is far from complete.”

Peters suggested two systemic changes to make Washington’s roads safer: more law enforcement and stricter driving under the influence laws.

According to Washington Traffic Safety Commission data, Peters said, reduced law enforcement is directly correlated to the increase in traffic fatalities.

“People are reverting to risk factors that had widely improved over the past three decades,” Peters said in an email. “More impairment, more distractions, more speed, and less restraint usage.”

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Additionally, Washington has one of the lowest levels of law enforcement officers per capita.

A study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that state patrol traffic stops are not associated with reduced motor vehicle crash deaths after analyzing motor vehicle crash deaths at the state level from 2004-16 from 33 state patrols.

“Strategies to reduce death from motor vehicle crashes should consider alternative strategies, such as motor vehicle modifications, community-based safety initiatives, improved access to health care, or prioritizing trauma system,” it said.

Peters also cited a failed bill in the state Legislature that would have lowered the blood alcohol concentration limit for DUI from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

A similar bill passed in Utah and, according to a 2022 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, produced positive results.

Despite an increase in vehicle miles traveled, Utah recorded 225 fatal crashes and 248 fatalities in 2019, the first year the 0.05 law was in effect, down from 259 fatal crashes and 281 fatalities in 2016, the last full year before the law was enacted.

When vehicle miles traveled were factored in, the fatal crash rate and the fatality rate reduction went down by nearly 20 percent from 2016 to 2019. In comparison, the rest of the U.S. showed a 5.6 percent reduction in the fatal crash rate and a 5.9 percent fatality rate reduction during the same period, the study found.

Utah was tied for the fifth lowest fatality rate at 0.96 in 2022 (the national average was 1.35 and Washington’s was 1.26).

“The goal of this bill is not to increase the number of DUI arrests, but to remind and encourage people to avoid driving after drinking and thereby save lives,” said Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste in January.

The things taught in driver’s education are just as true today, Peters said. Plan ahead if you’re going to drink, follow the speed limit and wear your seat belt.

“Law enforcement alone will not solve this crisis,” Peters added. “It requires a collective effort from every member of the community and a personal commitment to safe driving behaviors.”

Whiteboard with an extra sheet

A dry-erase whiteboard hangs in Lau’s office, roughly 4 feet by 3 feet. It is neatly organized with straight lines and clear categories showing the open fatal crash investigations.

The 27 cases fill each line on the whiteboard and spill onto a sheet of paper taped to the whiteboard. Last year they needed two extra sheets to fit in all the cases, she said.

The spreadsheet details the case number, date, location and type of case. Many of the cases are awaiting toxicology reports. One has been open since 2021.

It’s “such a high load and if something time-sensitive comes up the older cases get pushed to the back burner,” Lau said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer