Traffic fatalities in Washington drop to lowest number since 1975

  • By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
  • Thursday, March 31, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

Death is down on Washington’s roadways.

The 448 fatalities on state highways, county roads and city streets last year was the lowest total since 1975, the year the state began keeping data it can compare with national numbers.

Snohomish County mirrored the statewide trend. There were 31 traffic fatalities in 2010. The average number of fatals during the previous five years was 46.

It’s a vast improvement from when Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick was a young trooper with the Washington State Patrol in the mid-1970s. In 1975, there were 771 traffic deaths in Washington. At that time, it was the highest total over the 35 years.

“I’m thrilled about the numbers for 2010, but they are still too high,” Lovick said.

Lovick believes the drop can be traced to education, legislation and enforcement.

A former state representative, he was a prime sponsor of the “click it or ticket” law passed in 2002 that allowed law enforcement officers to stop drivers not wearing seat belts.

Today Washington is one of the nation’s top three states in seat-belt usage with 97 percent of drivers buckling up.

Local and state experts attribute the decline in traffic deaths to several factors that have taken place over many years.

Laws restricting the hours that newly licensed teen drivers can be on the road and who can be in their cars also are credited with helping lower the death rate.

Safety improvements to cars, such as airbags and crumple zones, have improved the survival rate in collisions.

Better training and tools for paramedics and emergency medical technicians as well as top-flight trauma centers help keep the numbers low.

“The medical awareness of trauma types of injuries has really improved and driven the care,” Snohomish County Fire District 1 assistant chief Mark Correira said.

The sputtering economy and high gas prices also might play a role, said Mimi Nickerson, a research analyst for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. People might be less willing to risk getting traffic tickets and probably are driving less, she said.

State transportation, law enforcement and traffic experts believe the number of traffic fatalities could continue to drop. Through a statewide Target Zero campaign, they have set a goal of no deaths on the state’s roads by 2030. The campaign includes rigorously enforcing traffic safety laws, innovative roadway engineering and consistently getting the word out to drivers about safety issues.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said troopers will continue to focus on three violations that cost the most lives: speeding, impaired driving and failure to wear seat belts.

“Eliminating those three violations would, just by themselves, get us most of the way to Target Zero,” he said.

In Snohomish County, drunken or drug-impaired drivers have been involved in about half the fatal accidents during a five-year period ending in 2009, according to a state report. Speeding was a factor in 45 percent of the deaths.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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