Apr 3, 2024 - News

Traffic deaths are up in Washington state

Estimated change in vehicle-related fatalities, 2022 to 2023
Data: U.S. Department of Transportation; Map: Thomas Oide/Axios

Vehicle-related deaths rose 11% in Washington last year, despite a national 3.6% decrease, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics.

Why it matters: The percentage of fatal crashes went up statewide between 2022 and 2023 even as the total number of crashes went down, per Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) data.

Zoom out: Fatal crashes in Washington have also increased since before COVID, from 517 in 2019 to 596 in 2021, WSDOT reports.

  • There was a presumption that the increase was somewhat tied to the pandemic and lockdowns, Clay Peterman, a transportation safety engineer for WSDOT, told Axios, but they have not gone down since the lockdowns were lifted in 2021.
  • In fact, fatal car crashes in Washington reached record highs both in 2022 and 2023, per the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
  • There have been 113 fatal crashes this year, per the most recent WSDOT data.

Threat level: In Washington, 75% of deadly collisions are attributed to what the commission calls "the fatal four": impairment, speeding, distraction and not wearing seatbelts, with distracted driving accounting for about 23% of the deaths in 2022.

To reduce distracted driving, highway safety regulators across the country are kicking off a new campaign — "Put the Phone Away or Pay" — that targets younger drivers, who are the most likely to die in distraction-related crashes.

  • The campaign's "high-visibility enforcement" portion runs April 4–8, and targets drivers 18 to 34. Fines average $100 in most states.

Washington State Patrol said in a post on X that it has contacted more distracted drivers this year than last when comparing year-to-date data.

Reality check: There are lots of other things besides phones that can distract people behind the wheel, said Peterman, who noted he's seen people reading books and shaving.

Plus: "We don't have hard numbers to support this, but anecdotally and from talking to other people, it feels as if drivers are more aggressive," Peterman said.

  • Washington State Patrol Trooper John Dattilo agreed, telling Axios that aggression on the state's roads is real and may be connected to the increase in the frequency of reported shootings.
  • "It can definitely be scary out there."

Flashback: Changing driving habits can take time. Today, 91% of people buckle up, according to government data, but getting Americans to wear seat belts was a decades-long effort.

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