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News / Northwest

WA road deaths jump 10%, reaching 33-year high. What are we doing wrong?

810 killed in motor vehicle crashes on state’s roads last year, a 33-year high

By Nicholas Deshais, The Seattle Times
Published: May 14, 2024, 6:42pm

Washington recorded another grim milestone this week, with numbers from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission showing yet another year of increasing fatalities on the state’s roads.

Statewide, 810 people were killed in crashes involving a motor vehicle in 2023, a 33-year high. That’s up from 743 in 2022, and nearly double from 2014, when 462 people were killed in traffic.

The upward trend bucks national behavior, where traffic deaths have fallen two years in row despite an increase in the number of miles driven. Last year, 40,990 people died on U.S. roads, a 3.6 percent decrease from 2022, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Washington helps lead the pack in double-digit increases in road fatalities. With its more than 10 percent increase over the previous year, Washington joins Idaho and Rhode Island as the three top states with the most dangerous roads — and both states had far fewer deaths in raw numbers, about 280 and 70, respectively.

Local Angle

Clark County experienced 37 traffic deaths in 2023, according to preliminary data collected by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

In the past 10 years, there have been 317 traffic deaths in Clark County, with 2020 being the worst year at 40 deaths. The fewest deaths were recorded in 2016, when 20 people died in crashes involving a motor vehicle.

Impairment-involved deaths are on the rise in Clark County — 26 fatalities involving a drug- or alcohol-impaired driver were recorded in 2023, the most recorded in the past 10 years.

In 2023, Clark County also experienced 14 fatalities involving excessive speed, six involving an unrestrained vehicle occupant and seven involving a distracted driver.

To learn more, visit https://wtsc.wa.gov/dashboards/.

— Dylan Jefferies

Nearly every other state recorded fewer deaths than the year before. California and Texas remain the states with the largest number of road deaths, with more than 4,000 each.

In Washington, King County recorded the most dead, with 167 people killed in traffic, up from 151 in 2022 and more than double the fatalities in 2014, which had 83. Pierce, Spokane and Snohomish counties rounded out the top of the list.

“Every number represents a life lost. A lost family member. A lost co-worker. A lost friend. The people who mourn have had their lives changed forever,” said Shelly Baldwin, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, in a statement. “I hold them in my heart as I ask drivers to take the actions we know save lives. Drive sober. Be patient. Stay focused. Buckle up.”

Last year, 400 fatalities involved a drug- or alcohol-impaired driver, 251 involved speeding, 171 involved someone not wearing a seat belt or other restraint, and 35 involved a distracted driver.

Roger Millar, who leads the state transportation department, said the state is investing in safer roads, by installing cameras that catch speeders and incorporating Complete Streets policies into its capital programs that create more space and separation for people on bikes and pedestrians. But he called on people to end “erratic driver behavior,” which he said “would make a difference immediately.”

Kirk Hovenkotter, executive director of the statewide Transportation Choices Coalition, said a solution has less to do with motorist behavior than street design.

“We know what works. It’s designing roadways to slow down speeds and promote people walking and riding bikes, and promote transit,” he said. “That works, it just takes political will and investment.”

Hovenkotter pointed to a 2022 WSDOT report that showed 65 percent of serious or fatal crashes between drivers and people on bikes or pedestrians were on state highways within cities.

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He called on policymakers to treat these dangerous state roads as a “megaproject” in need of an immediate fix. And he applauded the proposed $1.45 billion Seattle transportation levy for focusing on roads like these, notably Aurora Avenue North.

“Make it easier to walk, ride a bike or take transit. We need better sidewalks, better transit stops, and signals. Make it easier for the 25 percent of Washingtonians who don’t drive,” Hovenkotter said.

The highest recorded year of traffic fatalities remains 1979, which saw 1,015 deaths. Beginning in the 1980s, American policies on road safety, speeding and drunken driving began to drive down traffic deaths until 2009. That year, fatalities began their rise to today, fueled in part by much larger vehicles and smartphones distracting drivers. The pandemic supercharged this trend.

Despite Seattle’s efforts to reverse the increase in road deaths, last year also had the dubious distinction of having the most pedestrians killed than any other year on record, with 157 dead, many in the Seattle area.

In 2015, the city of Seattle adopted its Vision Zero plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets by 2030. In the years since, deaths and injuries have only risen, leading Seattle Department of Transportation Director Greg Spotts to call for a review of the program soon after being sworn-in in September 2022.

The review concluded in February 2023, and said the city must lower speed limits, build safety into its capital projects, and fully fund safety projects if it was serious about ending deaths.

The city’s proposed $1.45 billion transportation levy, which will be on the November ballot after the city council reviews and amends it, has $162 million earmarked for Vision Zero safety projects.

With 53 pedestrians killed, King County accounted for more than a third of the state’s pedestrian deaths.