Two drivers were hospitalized for serious injuries in February 2022, after a suspected DUI crash on southbound I-5’s ramp to I-405 in Lynnwood. (South County Fire)

Two drivers were hospitalized for serious injuries in February 2022, after a suspected DUI crash on southbound I-5’s ramp to I-405 in Lynnwood. (South County Fire)

Editorial: Keep eyes on road and laws to limit traffic deaths

A record 745 traffic deaths in the state in 2022 calls for tightening of laws and drivers’ attention.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Maybe along with speed-limit and other signs along our roads and highways, the following number also ought to be posted in figures 14 inches high: 745.

That’s the estimated number of traffic fatalities in Washington state in 2022, a record in the decade since traffic fatalities had declined to 436 in 2013. Rather than continuing that decline for the past 10 years — as has been the intention of the state’s Target Zero campaign — we have suffered a frightening increase in deaths, overshooting Target Zero’s 2019 predicted trend line of 600 deaths by 2030.

If not among motorists, that number does have the attention of state lawmakers this session, resulting in a raft of bills meant to put the brakes on the state’s traffic fatalities, injuries and property damage.

Among the bills, legislation — whose chief sponsors were either Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, chairman of the chamber’s transportation committee, or Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek — now being considered includes:

Senate Bill 5583, which would require drivers between the ages of 18 and 22 to complete a full driver’s training course to qualify for a driver’s license; and require those between 22 and 25 to complete a condensed traffic safety course to get a license;

Senate Bill 5514, which would prohibit right turns at red lights at intersections within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, public transit centers, hospitals, senior centers and any facility with high levels of pedestrian traffic;

Senate Bill 5272, which would allow the use of automated speed cameras in state highway work zone; and

Senate Bill 5002, which would lower the blood alcohol concentration limit for drivers from .08 to .05, and would place Washington state alongside Utah as having the lowest limit for impaired driving in the country.

Driver’s training: Until 2002, such training was standard at most high schools in the state. That changed as the state cut funding for “driver’s ed” courses through the schools and placed the expectation on individuals to get their training through private programs at 16 or wait until 18 to get a license without the benefit of training.

The result, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, has been a 70 percent higher likelihood of death or injury for those who have not completed a traffic safety course.

Along with increasing age requirements for training, the legislation would require the state Department of Licensing to develop a driver training voucher program for low-income drivers and directs the Superintendent of Public Instruction to work with Licensing to establish a grant program for schools by 2025 to resume traffic safety courses.

Right turns on red: While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 18 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred at intersections, those locations may offer the best opportunity to reduce injuries and fatalities of pedestrians.

When making a right turn on a red light, drivers’ attention routinely is on the traffic coming from the left; not on pedestrians, especially those to the right of the vehicle. In exchange for a slightly longer drive for most motorists, ending the right turn on red at more locations would remind drivers to stop and look for pedestrians at all intersections.

Speed cameras in work zones: Among traffic fatalities in the last three years, 28 occurred in work zones, according to testimony before a Senate committee. As has been demonstrated in school zones and elsewhere, automated traffic safety cameras are an effective deterrent and should be expanded to protect the lives and safety of road crews, especially in light of the expected increase in highway construction and maintenance work ahead.

Lowering the blood-alcohol limit: Among the more controversial bills, lowering the blood-alcohol concentration from .08 to .05, has drawn the most objections and the most doubts over its potential effectiveness.

Most of the concerns have been raised by the hospitality and tourism industries, that the lower limit will target more responsible drinkers and discourage business from diners consuming wine, beer and mixed drinks with meals or those who attend wine tastings offered at clusters of tasting rooms, such as those in Woodinville and throughout the state’s winery regions.

Only Utah has lowered its legal BAC level to .05, but the result since 2017 has shown fewer traffic deaths, yet without measurable impacts to restaurants and retailers in that state. In 2019, Utah reported 248 traffic fatalities, a nearly 6 percent reduction from the 281 fatalities in 2016 before the lower limit went into effect, NHTSA reported.

The lower limit may have been most effective as an education measure, the NHTSA report said, motivating drivers to take extra care to avoid driving while impaired, by using a designated driver or arranging for a ride.

Even at that lower limit, there is some level of impairment and loss of response time, studies have found.

The report also found none of the legal or economic downsides that had been feared. Utah law enforcement saw a decline — rather than an increase that some expected — in arrests for impaired driving; dropping from 2016’s 8,828 to 8,512 in 2019.

The need for a better record in Washington state is clear: Wrecks involving impaired drivers accounted for between 50 percent and 60 percent of the state’s fatalities for the years 2017 through 2021, according to the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.

Lowering the blood-alcohol level offers the most effective path toward fewer traffic deaths because it’s an opportunity for further public education backed by the reminder of the consequences of impaired driving, including the possibility of up to a year in jail, a fine of up to $5,000 and suspension of the driver’s license.

As important as the legislation, however, will be an increase in traffic patrols to enforce new and existing laws and the funding to support hiring. The Washington State Patrol is 249 troopers below its full staffing, State Patrol Chief John Batiste told public radio’s Northwest News Network last month. One proposal would fund recruitment bonuses of $10,000 for new state patrol cadets, and $15,000 bonuses for the transfer of experienced officers.

A 71 percent increase in traffic fatalities over 10 years demands the attention of lawmakers, but it especially demands the attention of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists to make themselves more keenly aware of their surroundings, their abilities, their speed and their sobriety.

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