SEATTLE — Nearly 600 people died on Washington’s roads in the first nine months of 2022, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — a more than 20 percent jump compared with the same period a year earlier.
A full accounting of 2022’s toll will come later this year as officials work to confirm their counts.
Washington’s deadly trend stands in contrast with the national picture, which for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic turned negative, even if by a modest 0.2 percent.
The state had a particularly bad few months in early 2022, said Mark McKechnie, director of external relations for the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.
“At the very beginning of the year, we thought we were on track for 800 fatalities,” he said.
The harrowing toll cooled slightly as the year progressed and now state officials predict that, by the time the numbers are confirmed for all of 2022, the total will be closer to 700, marking a 5 percent-10 percent increase from 2021. Still, McKechnie said ,they’re “99 percent certain” that 2022 will be the fourth year in a row with more traffic deaths than the year before — and likely the deadliest in 25 years.
Why Washington saw yet another jump while other states saw decreases in their numbers will be a matter of ongoing study as the year’s tally is confirmed, but McKechnie expects many of the same culprits apply: speed, wide roads through communities and impairment.
Few obvious patterns stand out among the states that saw improvement; no matter if they were small or large; rural or urban; or liberal or conservative. South Dakota saw the largest drop in deaths, down 28 percent from 2021. Nebraska, meanwhile, another rural state, saw a 23 percent increase. California’s number declined by more than 2 percent while New York’s increased by nearly 4 percent.
The jump in traffic deaths in 2020, despite reduced traffic in the early months of the pandemic, surprised observers. The prevailing explanation became that with emptier roads, drivers sped more, resulting in deadlier collisions.
That narrative is complicated, however, by the fact that deaths remain high even as society has reopened, and drivers returned to the roads.
A recent analysis by AAA, first reported on by StreetsBlog USA, further complicates it. The roadside assistance company concluded much of the increase encompassed deaths that occurred at night or very early in the morning, when congestion is unlikely to have played a role. Researchers also found a large jump in the number of people with expired licenses involved in deadly crashes and more cases of hit and run.
Understanding Washington’s numbers will likely take months, said McKechnie. Anecdotally, the safety commission continues to receive reports of speeding, which was a factor in 30 percent of deadly crashes last year. Impairment is also a major driver of fatal collisions — 32 percent involved alcohol and 37 percent involved drugs in 2021.
Larger factors include the increase in vehicle weight and the roads that run through increasingly populated communities without amenities for pedestrians or bikes.
Enforcement of speeding is also still far below 2019 numbers as well.
As the 2023 legislative session begins, lawmakers have pledged to prioritize safety in the House and Senate transportation committees. One proposal would lower the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent.
McKechnie said he’s hopeful more cities and towns will take advantage of automated speed cameras; changes to state law during last year’s session mean they are more widely allowed than in the past. Additionally, last year’s nearly $17 billion transportation funding package included requirements that new projects include safety measures for walkers and bikers.
While overall deaths are down slightly nationwide, pedestrian and cyclist deaths still increased — up 8 percent among people on bikes and 2 percent among people walking. In total, 31,785 died in the first nine months of 2022.