Iowa traffic deaths slowing this year after 2016 spike

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DES MOINES — Following one of the deadliest years in nearly a decade, Iowa’s roads have been less treacherous for drivers so for this year.

There have been 279 traffic fatalities in Iowa this year through Thursday, according to state data. By this same time last year, there were 313.

If the trend holds out for the last two months of the year, it would be a marked reduction from 2016 — where in all there were 402 deaths recorded, the most in nearly a decade and a 26 percent increase over 2015.

When comparing the first nine months of 2016 and 2017, traffic deaths were down 12.4 percent.

“Right now we’re trending in a better direction by far,” said Jan Laaser-Webb, a safety engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation.

If the numbers remain steady, 2017 will be similar to the 2012 through 2015 period, when annual traffic deaths statewide ranged from 317 to 365.

Traffic safety officials are not sure why the number of traffic deaths in Iowa spiked last year and appear to be reverting to the more recent norm. It could be that 2016 was an anomaly.

The 402 traffic deaths in 2016 were the most in Iowa since 2008. The spike reversed trends of gradually lowering traffic deaths. In 2015, the state saw 9.7 traffic deaths per billion miles driven, the lowest ever.

“I do think that 2016 was kind of an outlier, based on all the evidence from (previous years),” said Todd Olmstead, a program administrator with the governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

Safety officials said they believe various education efforts, a new law and public interest could be helping reduce the number of traffic deaths so far this year.

The biggest policy change is the state’s new texting while driving law, which enabled law enforcement officers to stop drivers solely for that offense. Before the new law went into effect in July, officers had to stop a driver for a separate offense and then, if relevant, cite the driver for texting.

Between the debates over the new law during the legislative session, media coverage of the new law and enforcement since it went into effect, safety officials believe Iowa drivers are more aware not only of the new law but also the dangers of distracted driving. Officials say that may be a factor.

“The public awareness that has been put out there, with the texting and driving and distracted driving issues, I think the law change, we hope, was a contributing factor,” Olmstead said. “There’s already been more citations written since July 1 then there was all of 2016. So I think that has an impact on it, too.”

The monthly traffic fatality numbers since the law took effect this summer are not yet a long enough period to draw a link between the number of deaths and the anti-texting law. Five of the six months of 2017 before the law even took effect show decreases.

Officials say they believe distracted driving — whether due to texting or other actions — continues to be a primary factor in traffic deaths. Nationally, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015, according to the federal transportation department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“It’s definitely an emerging issue,” Laaser-Webb said.

Safety officials also believe state programs designed to draw attention to safe driving practices has helped reduce traffic fatalities this year.

Chief among those is the state transportation department’s “Message Monday” program, in which a clever but informative phrase is posted on traffic boards.

For example, last week’s Message Monday read, “Don’t throw a fit. Pack a survival kit.” Earlier this month, the weekly message referenced a Taylor Swift song lyric, saying, “Old Taylor can’t come to the phone. She’s driving.”

The Message Monday effort is part of the department’s Zero Fatalities program.

“Any time we can put traffic safety in the minds of the motoring public, that’s a good thing,” Olmstead said. “Public awareness is huge. When an issue becomes in the forefront and it’s talked about, whether it’s on the news or in the newspaper or on social media or with law enforcement enforcing the law, all of those things contribute to keeping our roadways and highways safer when people are thinking about their driving as opposed to other things.”

Safety officials say that while they hope those programs are having an impact, it is difficult to quantify. And it is similarly difficult to discern exactly why traffic deaths spiked last year, or why they are falling so far this year.

“I really wish I knew so we could continue to do whatever it is we’re doing,” Laaser-Webb said.

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