CEDAR RAPIDS — At least 400 people died from crashes on the state’s roadways in 2016, nearly a 27 percent increase over the year before and the most since 2008, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.
The spike in traffic deaths breaks a four-year downward movement in Iowa road fatalities, adding urgency to efforts to reverse it.
“The scary thing for us is, as you take a look, Iowa really had been trending the right way and then 2016 comes along,” said Patrick Hoye, the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau chief.
Moreover, the 2016 spike comes just three years after Iowa saw 317 fatal crashes — the lowest in 70 years.
Hoye said the increase in traffic fatalities was consistent throughout most of the year. Only one month last year — August — saw a decrease from 2015. February had the same amount of fatalities, but every other month saw an increase from 2015, Hoye said.
“It wasn’t like we had one bad month — we had 10 bad months,” he said. “This normally never happens, where you see month after month after month with increased fatalities.”
The 2016 tally of 400 traffic fatalities on Iowa roads still could increase. The Iowa DOT has not yet taken into account any fatalities that happened Saturday, the last day of the year. And the agency adds to the total any crash-related death that occurs within 30 days of the incident.
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Finding the primary causes of 2016’s spike is difficult, but Hoye said ongoing concerns remain distracted driving, impaired driving and driving at excessive speeds.
Deaths from alcohol-related crashes in Iowa have hovered around 30 percent, and 2016 was no exception, Hoye said.
Last summer, Gov. Terry Branstad asked for the creation of a task force to study ways to combat distracted, drunken and drowsy driving that could include cellphone restrictions and increased public awareness.
The group in November identified 66 proposals aimed at getting drunken and impaired drivers off the road through stepped-up enforcement, prevention, education and adjudication.
Hoye said efforts to reduce the number of Iowa traffic deaths could run the gamut in an attempt to get numbers moving back in the right direction — “everything from driver’s education to the Legislature,” he said.
The last time Iowa’s yearly highway traffic fatalities surpassed 400 was in 2008 when it reached 412 deaths.
The highest annual record for traffic-related deaths was 912 in 1970, while the lowest on record was 261 in 1925 — the last time state roadway deaths dropped below 300, according to Iowa DOT data.
While the number of traffic-related deaths in 2016 is discouraging, Hoye said it has officials taking a serious look at the issue.
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“If there can possibly be anything positive that comes out of a higher fatality count, maybe that would be that we take a stronger look at what we could be doing to reduce crashes,” Hoye said. “We’re taking 2017 month by month, and our goal is that every month is less than where we were in 2016.”
Of the 400 traffic fatalities reported so far for 2016, 99 involved motorcycles, pedestrians or others. Of the 301 people killed while riding in cars or trucks, 123 of them — nearly 41 percent — were not wearing seat belts.
Yet with Iowa’s seat belt compliance rate at about 93 percent, Iowa State Patrol spokesman Sgt. Nathan Ludwig said the majority of Iowans are buckling up.
Iowa law, however, does not enforce seat-belt use for individuals in the back seat who are 18 or older. In high-speed incidents, a seat belt can be the difference between life and death, no matter where you are sitting, Ludwig said.
“The 7 percent that are not buckling up are 40 percent of the fatalities,” Ludwig said. “No matter where you are in the car, put your seat belt on.”
Hoye said the state’s seat-belt compliance rate last year appears to have climbed 1 percentage point, to 94 percent.
“To me that really is a testament to how successful those belts are. … If you’re not buckled, your chances of surviving the crash are severely hampered.”
Here is a look at the number of traffic fatalities on Iowa roads over the past 10 years:
2016 — 400
2015 — 316
2014 — 320
2013 — 316
2012 — 359
2011 — 355
2010 — 390
2009 — 371
2008 — 412
2007 — 446
Source: Iowa Department of Transportation
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