When the Snohomish County DUI Victims Memorial Wall was first erected, a grove of trees at Everett’s McCollum Park likely seemed a good setting for family and friends to gather and remember those lost to impaired driving.
Its secluded location, however, means the wall is less than noticeable in the public eye and too often has been left vulnerable to vandalism and litter. Some families and others have called for the memorial to be moved, including the county’s DUI victim panel coordinator, Jan Schemenauer, The Herald’s Julia-Grace Sanders reported last week.
Schemenauer, whose husband was killed by an impaired driver 40 years ago, and others asked the Snohomish County Council to consider moving the memorial wall to a more visible location at the county campus in downtown Everett.
“I feel that the more we put (the memorial) in the front, rather than in the back, is the only way we’ll get change to occur,” she said.
Change has been occurring in traffic deaths and serious injuries in the state since the wall went up in 2001, but since 2014 that change has been in the wrong direction, in particular for deaths and injuries where impaired driving is the leading cause.
A draft of the Target Zero campaign’s 2019 update — an effort that includes multiple state agencies including the Washington State Patrol, the state Traffic Safety Commission and state Department of Transportation — shows a disheartening rise in fatalities and serious injuries in recent years, even after years of steady decline.
Deaths and injuries reached a recent peak in 2005 and 2006; 649 traffic fatalities in 2005 and 2,952 serious injuries in 2006. Thanks to changes in law, including laws lowering the legal limit for blood alcohol level and addressing seatbelt and motorcycle helmet use, fatalities declined steadily to 436 as of 2013, allowing some hope that Target Zero’s goal — zero traffic fatalities by 2030 — was achievable.
Since 2014, however, the numbers have crept up; 563 deaths in 2017, and a five-year average of 510 deaths. Likewise, serious injuries were at a low of 1,916 in 2013, but reached a high of 2,220 in 2017.
Leading factors in those wrecks aren’t surprising. For 2015 through 2017, the years studied in the Target Zero update, of the 1,650 fatalities reported, impaired driving — and that includes use of cannabis and other intoxicants in addition to alcohol — was a factor in 58 percent, distractions contributed in 30 percent and speeding in 29 percent. Considering age and experience, young drivers between 16 and 25 years of age were involved in 31 percent of fatalities.
As those numbers have increased, state lawmakers have responded, in particular in 2017 when laws were passed to:
Make impaired driving a felony if the driver has three or more impaired-driving convictions within 10 years;
Allow citation of drivers caught holding a cellphone or other mobile device;
And more funding in the state transportation budget that year, which improved lagging pay for state troopers that had made recruitment and retention difficult for the State Patrol.
The Target Zero update, now incorporating public comment ahead of its release to legislators and others before the next session, offers recommendations, not only for proposed legislation, but other efforts addressing what it calls the Five E’s: education, enforcement, engineering, emergency medical services and evaluation.
The legislative proposals, while potentially effective, are likely to face some push-back. The draft update suggests expanded use of automated traffic safety cameras for speeding outside of school zones where the cameras are now used; sobriety check points, allowing law enforcement to stop vehicles to check for impaired drivers; and increased driver’s training requirements for young and inexperienced drivers.
Using figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the report estimated that expanded use of traffic safety cameras could result in an annual reduction of 21 deaths and 1,700 injuries; use of sobriety checkpoints, the report estimates, would result in 15 fewer fatalities and 1,350 fewer injuries each year.
As those proposals are considered, potential benefits will have to be weighed against civil rights issues.
The update, developed in concert with the state’s tribal governments, also provides a focus on traffic fatalities and injuries on the state’s tribal reservations, citing the high rate of traffic fatalities among American Indians and Alaskan Natives. During the study’s focus, 2015-2017, the traffic fatality rate among Native Americans was 28.5 per 100,000 people, much higher than the rates for African Americans (7.3), whites (7.3), Latinos (4.9) and Asians and Pacific Islanders (3.2).
Driver impairment, as in the general population, was a leading factor — 71 percent of traffic fatalities — but the report also notes challenges specific to reservations, including minimal availability of transit services; lack of sidewalks, crosswalks and street lights; high speeds; and enforcement limited by a lack of enforcement staffing and geography.
There will be plenty to discuss and debate when the official Target Zero update is released. And there’s work ahead not just for state lawmakers but for city and county officials to increase enforcement, enhance education and engineer improvements to roads, especially those that provide greater separation among vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians.
Snohomish County can start by moving a memorial — now with 143 names — where those passing by each day can view a painful but necessary reminder that honors their memories.