SPOKANE — Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do on a regular basis, and state officials are urging people to take care on the roads in the midst of what they’re calling a “historically deadly year.”
Annual traffic fatalities in Washington have been on the rise the past 10 years, according to data collected by authorities.
State officials sent out an end-of-summer alarm in late August, warning the public that Washington could be on track to break a traffic fatality record if the current rate of fatal crashes continues.
At the end of July, the state reported an increase in traffic deaths compared to the same time last year. This year, a total of 417 traffic fatalities were counted through July, compared to 413 last year.
In 2022, a reported 750 people died in fatal collisions on Washington roads — the most since 1990. Authorities say four key behaviors among drivers resulted in 75 percent of the deaths in 2022: impairment, distraction, speeding and not wearing seat belts.
Traffic deaths in Washington increased by nearly 40 percent between 2019 and 2022. Experts speculated the uptick has had multiple causes, including changes in traffic patterns since the 2020 COVID outbreak and increased numbers of people driving under the influence of multiple drugs at one time.
More deaths per crash
In recent years, Washington has seen an increase in the number of fatalities per crash, said Shelly Baldwin, director of the state Traffic Safety Commission.
Baldwin said that there used to be a more “1-to-1” ratio between crashes and fatalities. But that ratio has increased on the fatality side of the scale since the pandemic, she said, with each crash resulting in more fatalities, on average.
“I really suspect that increased speeds are resulting in more fatal crashes,” Baldwin said. “Drivers seem to be driving a lot faster everywhere, not just on the freeways.”
This increase in speed could be explained by societal shifts caused by the pandemic. Pre-COVID, there were a lot of commuting trips to and from work. With more people working remote jobs from home, they might be driving places other than work — such as trips or recreating — that involve more people in one vehicle than a typical commute might.
Impaired driving by drivers under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol has accounted for about 50 percent of traffic fatalities the past decade. However, the increase in overall traffic fatalities means more drivers are choosing to get behind the wheel while impaired.
“What we’re seeing on our roads has also been what we’re seeing in general in society since COVID hit,” Baldwin said. “Which is increased alcohol use, increased drug use. … What we’re seeing, mental health stresses, is all also playing out on our roads, which is leading to faster speeds, less paying attention to the polite rules of the road.”
Data shows the number of fatal crashes involving somebody who’s not wearing a seat belt also has increased in the past few years.
“If you think about impairment, speed and not wearing your seat belt — those are all kind of risk-taking behaviors,” said Mark McKechnie, spokesperson for the WTSC. “So among a subset of the population there seems to be increased risk-taking that’s resulting in fatalities.”
In Washington, June, July and August are thought to be the most dangerous months for fatal crashes. Recent data also seems to indicate September and October are becoming increasingly deadly.
Motorcyclist fatalities have increased during warmer months in the past couple years, McKechnie said.
“I think part of it is inexperience or rusty skills, if you’re only riding a few months each year or maybe on weekends,” he said. “It takes practice and training for people to control motorcycles effectively.”
Motorcycle safety has been an “area of emphasis” in the state Department of Licensing, McKechnie said, to better reflect the skills that motorcyclists need to stay on the road.
Cellphone use is the only area of dangerous driving behavior that the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reported a decrease in since 2017. But cellphone use still happens “way too much” on roads, Baldwin said.
In 2017, a statewide survey reportedly unveiled a dangerous belief among Washingtonians that cannabis use makes one a better driver.
“We were finding that drivers thought that, after drinking, using marijuana made them more ready to drive,” Baldwin said.
Most respondents in that 2017 survey reported they do not drive following alcohol and cannabis use. Eighty-one percent reported they do not drive within two hours of drinking alcohol, the Traffic Safety Commission reported. And 91 percent reported they do not drive following cannabis use.
Even though the majority of Washingtonians are making safe driving choices, Baldwin said the small minority of people making dangerous decisions are causing an “oversized” amount of danger on the roads.
“The hope is, as we get the word out about this increase, people will think about how they’re driving,” Baldwin said. “Mostly, that most of us who are doing the right thing can do a little more outreach with people we know that maybe don’t always buckle up, or drive too fast, or need a different way home after they’ve been drinking or using marijuana.”