Lack of enforcement, more traffic deaths

Q: I’m writing in response to data you shared surrounding the increase in traffic fatalities. A question comes to mind: Are there statistics compiled showing overall traffic enforcement, and any trend over the past three to five years? And does that trend in enforcement have any correlation to the increase in fatalities? Call it anecdotal, but I will suggest there is a trend.

A: You’re asking a great question, but I don’t think you went big enough. It’s hard to spot a trend in a three-to-five-year window. So I went bigger. Let’s take a look at the last 20 years of traffic fatalities and traffic enforcement.

I’ve got all the numbers, but before we get to the details, take a look at this chart that overlays the patterns for the last 20 years:

Near the middle of the chart (2003-09) we have a peak in traffic enforcement. For several years after that, traffic fatalities declined. Then as enforcement decreased fatalities began to rise. Here’s the high point for each category of enforcement, the lowest year for fatalities and last year’s levels:

•Infractions- 2009: 1,280,187; 2022: 417,156

•DUI/Phys. Cont.- 2003: 44,685; 2022: 19,646

•Criminal Traffic- 1995: 199,669; 2002: 41,612

•Traffic Fatalities- 2013: 436; 2022: 750

For anyone bad with numbers, I’ll spell it out. We’re going the wrong way.

Does that mean that more traffic enforcement would reduce fatalities? I wish it were that easy. Enforcement matters, but we can’t arrest our way to zero fatalities. In the past, stricter DUI laws and primary seat belt laws reduced fatal crashes, but so did a shift in cultural attitudes toward impaired driving and wearing a seat belt. Improvements in vehicle engineering and better road design save lives, along with setting speed limits that make sense for the driving environment. So does the proximity of the nearest emergency responder.

Yes, enforcement is part of the solution. I’m not going to speculate on why it dropped off so much or how we get it back. I’ll leave that to the data researchers and the conspiracy theorists. I do know that within the law enforcement community, there is the will. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking at a conference to over 100 officers who came together because of their commitment to making our roads safer. They are just a fraction of the many officers arresting impaired drivers intervening in high-risk driving behaviors.

Last year we had the most traffic fatalities since 1990. But let’s give that more context. Almost every year prior to 1990 exceeded 750 traffic fatalities. From 1968 (as far back as I could find records) to 1990 we averaged 827 traffic deaths a year, peaking at over 1,000 in 1979. Yes, it’s a tragedy how many people die on our roads. But it’s not hopeless. From 1990 to 2010 we reduced traffic fatalities by nearly half. If we all agree that it’s important enough, we can do that again.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.