Iowa traffic deaths again approaching historic lows

Seat belt usage is one area of focus

Semis travel north on Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Semis travel north on Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Iowa is once again approaching historically low levels of traffic fatalities.

With nearly two-thirds of 2014 complete, there have been 193 fatalities on Iowa’s roadways, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. That compares favorably with 2013, when there were only 188 fatalities at this point in the year. Last year ended with 317 traffic fatalities, the lowest total since 1944.

Now, officials are hopeful they can make history again.

“It is a great trend that we’re certainly excited to see,” said Patrick Hoye, chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

But first, public safety officials have their eyes on the Labor Day holiday; historically one of the deadliest of the holiday weekends tracked by the Department of Transportation. There were four Labor Day weekend traffic fatalities in 2013, second only to the Fourth of July among the six holidays tracked by the DOT. New Year’s, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the other four. Each of those holiday weekends had only two fatalities in 2013.

While 2013 was a historic year for the state and worthy of celebration, Hoye said state officials have not spend 2014 riding on past success.

“We take a look every year, what can we possibly do — through enforcement, education, legislation — what can we do to drive down fatalities in the State of Iowa?” Hoye said. “That’s our ultimate goal.”

And when you are making significant strides in lowering fatalities — there were 365 in 2012, 360 in 2011 and 390 in 2010 — it can be difficult to find room for improvement, Hoye admits.

“You’re always trying to find something new,” he said. “That’s difficult to do year after year.”

One area state officials continue to focus on is seat belt compliance. On one hand, Iowa boasts seat belt compliance rate of 92 percent. However, it’s that 8 percent that remains that is contributing to half of all fatalities this year, Hoye said. Of the 110 traffic deaths in 2014 where seat belt usage was known, 55 died while not wearing a safety belt, according to DOT statistics.

“Eight percent of the population account for 50 percent of the fatalities,” Hoye said. “If you ever need a stat to say, ‘Do seat belts work?’ They absolutely do.”

With that in mind, the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau this year launched The High 5 Rural Traffic Safety Project, which targeted five counties with low seat belt compliance rates: Allamakee, Fremont, Marion, Webster and Palo Alto. A seat belt compliance check in some of those counties showed compliance rates as low as 60 percent, Hoye said.

Hoye said the state has increased educational and enforcement efforts in those areas. The state is optimistic that will translate into better compliance and fewer fatalities.

“If the pilot program goes well, we’ll continue to expand that program,” he said.

Motorists in Eastern Iowa and across the state can expect expanded law enforcement presence this weekend as part of the GTSB’s Drive Sober or Get Pulled enforcement initiative. More than 250 city, county and state law enforcement agencies will be beefing up their numbers to tackle speed, drunk driving and seat belt violations. The operation began Aug. 25 and runs through Sept. 7.

Locally, the Cedar Rapids Police Department will be conducting traffic projects throughout the city to increase visibility and reduce accidents over the weekend.

“The police department is encouraging motorists to slow down, wear seat belts and avoid distracted driving, such as texting or using a cellular phone while operating a motor vehicle,” said Greg Buelow, the city’s public safety spokesman.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said his department will have extra deputies working as part of the GTSB enforcement project and also will have deputies patrolling the Coralville Lake on boat. In Iowa City, Sgt. Scott Gaarde said between the holiday, the University of Iowa’s first home football game and the university’s first weekend since classes resumed, he expects calls for service to be up.

“We’ll staff accordingly and probably have more officers out,” Gaarde said.

With four months left in the year, Hoye said there still is time for 2014 to end as an even safer year than 2013. He points to September 2013, which was the deadliest month on Iowa road ways last year.

“We’re thinking that’s certainly a month where we can certainly do better,” he said. “The end of the year last year was fairly high. We think there is ground to be gained because of last year’s high crash rates at the end of the year.”

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