116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A troubling traffic safety trend emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic: While the number of vehicles on the road dropped sharply, road fatalities did not decline in tandem.
Data in Iowa and elsewhere show speed increased last year and there is anecdotal evidence that distracted driving rose as well, fueling a rise in traffic deaths that seems to be continuing even as the pandemic is on its way out. The State Patrol chief called it “the most dangerous driving we’ve witnessed in our 85-year history.”
“More people were working from home, staying safe and reducing travel. This should have been a recipe for less traffic crashes and traffic fatalities but instead Iowa actually saw an increase in traffic fatalities in 2020 from the previous year,” said Patrick Hoye, leader of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.
The state recently launched a campaign intended to reduce fatal crashes, with a goal of fewer than 300 in 2021.
Traffic safety is supposed to be based on the three E’s — engineering, enforcement and education. But Iowa leaders are leaning heavily on just one of those: Enforcement.
At a news conference announcing the statewide traffic crackdown, organizers filled the Capitol steps in Des Moines with uniformed police officers wearing their brimmed hats, not with traffic engineers and public relations professionals. I guess that makes for a better photo opportunity.
Police departments across the state last past week coordinated a special enforcement project aimed at impaired drivers. They have plans for other campaigns this summer focused on speeding, seat belts and distracted driving.
It’s a common instinct to throw more law enforcement resources at a perceived problem, but it’s often not the best solution, especially if it’s the only solution being taken up.
Organizers filled the Capitol steps in Des Moines with uniformed police officers wearing their brimmed hats, not with traffic engineers and public relations professionals.
Last year’s pandemic driving trends highlighted an important but overlooked truth about traffic safety — drivers operate according to the conditions around them, not necessarily to the posted speed limit or enforcement schemes.
With more people staying home to practice social distancing, drivers were greeted by wide-open roads with little opposing traffic, which made them comfortable driving faster and paying less attention to the road.
“Certainly the roads looked a lot different at that time when there was a lot less traffic volume on the roads,” DOT director Scott Marler said.
We could put that insight to good use and build roads that promote safe driving. Common street designs in Iowa with wide visibility lend themselves to higher speeds, which in turn necessitates more police.
While traffic planners made passing reference this week to roadway configuration and signage, they are mostly focused on enforcement.
Pulling drivers over and issuing tickets, especially in high-visibility areas, is associated with fewer vehicle accidents but it has diminishing returns. In other words, policing can have some beneficial effect on safety but we can’t enforce our way to zero fatalities.
Traffic stops also have drawbacks. Petty enforcement foments resentment of police among the public. People of color in Iowa are more likely to be pulled over, reinforcing the criticism that policing is racially biased.
Sending salaried employees out to enforce traffic laws is also expensive. Investing in smarter road design could be cheaper in the long run.
Additionally, any confrontation between police and the public has the possibility of turning deadly.
The city of Manchester was hit with a lawsuit last month, accusing a police officer of recklessly killing an Iowa man in a 2020 traffic pursuit.
Last December, police initiated a chase of a motorcyclist for speeding and having a suspended license, according to Gazette journalist Trish Mehaffey’s reporting on the lawsuit. A state trooper and a sheriff’s deputy ended the pursuit because it was unsafe within city limits, but a Manchester police officer continued the chase.
The man they were pursuing, Augustin Mormann, was killed after officer James Wessels’ police vehicle came into contact with the motorcycle. The lawsuit claims Wessells “intentionally killed Mormann.”
Running a high-speed chase through town certainly doesn’t make Iowans safer. Speeding is bad, but it should not carry a death sentence unilaterally carried out by a cop.
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