By The Herald Editorial Board
This is not the road to zero.
Certainly not Target Zero, the traffic safety program in Washington state that aims to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2030. That goal admittedly aims high, but rather than seeing a steady reduction in traffic-related deaths and injuries, the state — currently worse than the nation as a whole — has seen early progress erased by an increase in fatalities for drivers, passengers, motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists in recent years, with those reversals starting long before the pandemic.
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 to the current 0.08 standard, and addressing seatbelt and motorcycle helmet use, fatalities declined steadily to 436 as of 2013.
Since 2014, however, the numbers have crept up; 563 deaths in 2017, with a five-year average of 510 deaths. Statewide traffic deaths were at 516 in 2019, then jumped during the pandemic — even as total road miles traveled decreased — to 546 in 2020 and 643 in 2021.
Nationwide, the trend has been similar; more than 42,000 deaths in 2020, and almost 43,000 in 2021, a 14-year high mark. Nationally, traffic fatalities look to have dropped by about 1 percent in 2022, but Washington state continued on its own deadly path this year; for the first six months of 2022, 327 deaths were counted, a 31 percent increase over the same period for the previous year, likely putting the state near where it was nearly 20 years ago.
Traffic safety experts have a few ideas as to why traffic fatalities increased even as the number of miles traveled fell during much of the pandemic; specifically that the lack of traffic congestion on roads encouraged riskier behavior and higher speeds among drivers, especially younger, less-experienced drivers. Yet, the same trend — fewer miles driven but more traffic deaths — was seen in only three countries, The New York Times recently reported: the U.S., Switzerland and Ireland, with 27 other countries seeing declines in fatalities during the pandemic.
The reason for America as an outlier will surprise no one, whether they drive, bike or walk; the country’s long history of preference for motor vehicles and the emphasis on moving traffic quickly rather than safely, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board told the Times.
“Motor vehicles are first, highways are first, and everything else is an afterthought,” Homendy said.
Which means an emphasis on safety as well as getting where we’re going, can and has made a difference, with earlier efforts through Target Zero, initiatives in the state Legislature — such as the law against driving and phone use — and enforcement at the county and city level. Those efforts continue.
The passage earlier this year of the state’s $16.8 billion transportation package, along with specific safety and other improvements to roads, bridges and more also adopted a requirement called Complete Streets, which directs that upcoming transportation projects include access with “all users in mind, including pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation users.” As these projects are designed and built they are meant to keep in mind more than moving vehicles at higher speeds. As the city of Everett redevelops Madison Street, the inclusion of bike lanes — in exchange for losing a full-length center turn lane — is an example of how city streets can be made safer for cyclists.
Also this year, the Legislature has, at least until 2025, green-lighted the use by cities and counties of red-light and speed cameras in school walk areas, near public parks and hospital zones. Lynnwood has traffic safety cameras at selected intersections, railroad crossings and school zones. Everett, later in 2023, is expected to roll out its traffic safety cameras at six high-traffic intersections.
Yet, there’s still plenty to be addressed by the state Legislature, local government, and Congress, especially on reducing the numbers of pedestrian deaths and injuries.
For 2021, 155 pedestrians and cyclists died in traffic crashes, a 26 percent increase from 2020’s 123 deaths, according to state figures.
The safety of cyclists and pedestrians was a top concern among activists who gathered Nov. 20 for World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Victims at the intersection of Airport Road and Highway 99 in Everett, one of the county’s most dangerous. At least seven deaths have been reported this year on Snohomish County’s stretches of Highway 99, The Herald’s Ben Watanabe reported.
Advocates, such as Vicky Clarke, policy director for Washington Bikes, are calling for adoption of four policies by state and federal lawmakers. The cyclist group and others are seeking:
• Lowering the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.05, from its current 0.08 level;
• Requiring passage of a driver education course to obtain a license;
• Limiting right-hand turns at red lights; and
• Addressing the design and weight of motor vehicles, to limit deaths and injuries to cyclists and pedestrians.
The Legislature can address the first three; Congress, national safety officials and automakers can address the last, specifically lowering the mass of passenger vehicles and requiring changes to body design that prevent vehicles, in particular SUVs, from dragging pedestrians and cyclists beneath the vehicle.
State lawmakers, including Sens. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, and Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, proposed a reduction in the allowable blood alcohol level to the state’s impaired driving law this year, which lawmakers can bring back in January. And with a full 105-day session starting next month, lawmakers should have opportunities to address requirements for driver’s licenses and safety at intersections as well.
All will help, but real hopes to improve safety and reduce deaths and injuries are most dependent on those who are moving from Point A to Point B, whether we’re behind the wheel, holding handlebars or on foot. More attention on what’s going on around us, fewer distractions and basic care can get us closer to Zero.