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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Long road ahead on eliminating traffic deaths

The Columbian
Published: May 17, 2024, 6:03am

An increase in Washington traffic fatalities is the result of several factors. While legislation can address some of the issues, the bulk of the responsibility rests with drivers.

A new report from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission shows that 810 people were killed in crashes involving a motor vehicle during 2023. That is a 33-year high and marks a 9 percent increase from 743 fatalities in 2022. In fact, it is nearly double the number from 2014, less than 10 years prior.

Washington has more people driving more miles than it did a decade ago, but that does not lessen the importance of addressing the issue. As Shelly Baldwin, director of the state safety commission, said: “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. 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.”

In this regard, Washington is belying nationwide trends. In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, national vehicle fatalities increased, despite a sharp decline in people on the road. Since then, most states have returned to pre-pandemic safety levels, leading to questions about what Washington can do better.

The Legislature in recent years has taken measures to hold distracted drivers accountable and to strengthen laws against the use of cellphones while behind the wheel. But those measures apparently have been overwhelmed by two other factors.

One is that the recreational use of marijuana was legalized by statewide voters in 2012. Cannabis impairment is more difficult to measure and enforce than alcohol, but impairment plays a role in the danger on Washington’s roads. State officials say 400 fatalities last year involved a drug- or alcohol-impaired driver, compared with 251 that involved speeding (some crashes involve multiple factors).

Washington residents are unlikely to rescind legalized marijuana, but improved testing and enforcement for impaired driving is necessary.

That presents a difficulty, as Washington is notoriously bereft of enforcement. Our state ranks among the lowest in law enforcement officers per capita, and agencies throughout the state have reported difficulty recruiting and retaining personnel.

That shortage is evident on our roads. As Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, has said: “There’s a sense of impunity among some drivers, who are treating Washington’s roads like they’re a raceway.”

That places the onus on drivers. Avoiding impaired or distracted driving and reducing speed are obvious steps toward safety. Seemingly simple safety measures can have a large impact, as was demonstrated in the 1970s and 1980s.

During that period, the federal government mandated lower speed limits on highways, the threshold for drunk driving was lowered and states started requiring the use of seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Those measures, combined with improved vehicle safety, resulted in a 78 percent reduction in traffic fatalities per mile driven between 1969 and 2014. Since then, however, the rate has increased.

That belies the ambitious goals set forth in 2000, when Washington adopted Target Zero. The planning and educational project is designed to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030, a prospect that increasingly seems beyond reach. Improved enforcement, education and diligence on the part of drivers is necessary to make that desire a possibility.