Iowans are driving - and dying - on highways more

Motorists will see stepped-up patrols over Labor Day weekend

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Low gas prices and an improving economy are seen as fueling an increase in how much Iowans are driving.

They’re also contributing factors to a 22 percent increase in traffic fatalities compared with the same period of 2015, state transportation and safety agencies said.

Heading into the long Labor Day weekend, there have been 254 traffic fatalities in Iowa this year as of Thursday. That’s 42 more than in the same period a year ago — a 20 percent increase — and up 45, or 22 percent, from the year-to-date average from 2011-15, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

“That should be alarming to everybody,” said Alex Murphy, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety. “It’s alarming to us, especially as we approach Labor Day.”

Last year, the Labor Day weekend was the deadliest on Iowa roads, with six fatalities.

See also: Gas prices rise ahead of Labor Day weekend

In addition to higher traffic volumes due to the holiday, Murphy said the University of Iowa football season opener in Iowa City and the Iowa State University-University of Northern Iowa game in Ames will pump up traffic this weekend.

Murphy said the Iowa State Patrol will have more troopers spending more time on the highways because increased visibility encourages motorists to obey posted speed limits and other traffic laws.

“We’ll be doing more of what we always do,” he said. “When you pass a marked patrol car, you’re more likely to obey the speed limit and other traffic laws.”

To assist with the stepped-up patrols, the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau makes grants to the patrol and local agencies for overtime for increased patrols.

The increased number of fatalities in Iowa is running ahead of the 7.2 percent increase in traffic deaths nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Some of that can be attributed to more vehicles driving more miles, said Stuart Anderson of the Iowa Department of Transportation.

After peaking in 2004 at 31,971,000, vehicle miles of travel in Iowa were flat or declining as fuel prices rose and the economy went into recession.

In 2014, based on the DOT’s 169 automatic traffic recorders across the state, vehicle miles traveled was 32,332,000, surpassing 2004, Anderson said. By 2015, it increased by about 777,000 miles or 2.4 percent to 33,109,000.

That increase in vehicle miles traveled is roughly equivalent to driving a four-corners route around Iowa from New Albin to Larchwood to Hamburg to Keokuk and back to New Albin 766 times.

“We’re on pace this year to see similar magnitude of increase,” the director of DOT planning and programming said.

Lower fuel prices are one factor. The retail price of unleaded gas is about 41 cents a gallon less than a year ago and $1.30 less than five years ago, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Diesel is about 14 cents a gallon less than last year and $1.44 less than five years ago.

Iowa tourism officials cited lower gas prices as one reasons travel-generated state tax receipts hit a record $466.7 million in 2015, a 25 percent increase over 2014.

Although it seems logical to expect more fatalities as vehicle miles traveled increases, Anderson said there’s not a direct correlation.

The NHTSA says other factors are that more people are driving due to job growth and that there’s more driving by young people. Unemployment in Iowa fell from 6 percent in August 2011 to 4.1 percent in July.

Drunken driving, speeding and distracted driving are contributing, too, NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement this week.

“The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled,” he said. “While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities.”

In Iowa, data show 42 percent of traffic fatalities involved people not wearing seat belts. In another 11 percent it was unknown if they were belted and in 25 percent it was not applicable — those were bicycle, motorcycle and pedestrian deaths.

Iowa traffic fatalties, cumulative by month (2011-2016)

Iowa DOT data. Chart by John McGlothlen / The Gazette

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