Public Safety

Grim fall dashes hope for less deadly year on Iowa roads

Of the 336 deaths recorded, excessive speed largest factor

Traffic travels the S-curve through Cedar Rapids, shown looking north from downtown on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Liz Mart
Traffic travels the S-curve through Cedar Rapids, shown looking north from downtown on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Even though the pandemic detoured daily life for much of 2020, it did not bring a drop in the number of people killed in crashes on Iowa roads.

Preliminary data from the Iowa Department of Transportation shows that at least 336 people were killed in fatal wrecks in 2020 — the same number of deaths recorded in 2019.

When the pandemic first appeared in Iowa in March and Gov. Kim Reynolds began issuing emergency proclamations to slow the spread by shutting down many businesses, transportation officials were hopeful they would see a drop in traffic deaths, said Andrea Henry, Iowa DOT’s strategic communications and policy director.

“As the governor’s emergency proclamations began to take effect, we noticed a significant drop in traffic volumes, crashes, as well as fatalities and serious injuries,” she said in an email to The Gazette. “The combined fatalities seen during April, May and June of 2020 are the lowest we have seen in the past 10 years for three-month totals.”

Iowa DOT statistics show that in 2020, there were 17 traffic deaths in April, 21 in May and 22 in June. In 2019, the totals for the same months were 22, 30 and 35, respectively.

“However, in the middle of summer, as people began to leave their homes and resume some of their typical daily activities, we started to see the number of crashes creep back up to be on par with previous years,” Henry said.

What followed were some of the most deadly months on roads the state has seen in years.

“The combined number of fatalities in July and August was the highest of any two-month period in the last 10 years,” Henry said.

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In July, 44 deaths occurred on Iowa’s roadways according to Iowa DOT data, and 52 motorists died in August.

In other words, a deadly fall after restrictions eased erased hopes that one bright spot of 2020 might have been a sharp drop in traffic fatalities.

“We were very excited to see the fatality numbers drop significantly in spring and early summer of 2020,” Henry said in her email. “We believed the trend would last throughout the year and had hopes 2020 would be the year we would see the fatality numbers drop below 300 (the last time Iowa experienced under 300 roadway fatalities in a year was 1925 when there were 261). Unfortunately, as we moved through the months of July and August, our hopes were diminished.”

The preliminary traffic death data for 2020 still could change, Henry said, as local instigations may continue. The Iowa DOT considers a fatality ”crash-related” when the death occurs within 30 days of the wreck.

As of Friday, the Iowa DOT reported seven people have died so far this year on the state’s roads.

There were many factors that contributed to 2020’s fatalities, Henry said, but excessive speed was the biggest offender.

“More crashes were attributed to excessive speeds in 2020 than in the past five years and the fatality rates and serious injuries were much higher in crashes where a driver was exceeding the posted speed limit,” she said.

Additionally, 48 fatalities involved alcohol, 97 deaths involved people not wearing seat belts and eight fatalities occurred on roads undergoing construction.

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The county with the highest number of traffic deaths was Polk, where 28 fatal crashes resulted in the deaths of 36 people. Of those, 18 crashes occurred in Des Moines — the state’s capital and largest city — and resulted in 23 deaths.

Scott County recorded the second-highest number fatalities with 16 crashes resulting in 19 deaths. Most of the county’s fatalities were concentrated in Davenport — the county’s seat and largest city — where 13 crashes killed 16 people.

Pottawattamie and Linn counties had the third- and fourth-highest totals, respectively.

In Pottawattamie, 16 fatal crashes claimed 19 lives. Nine of those wrecks occurred in Council Bluffs — the county’s most populous city — and resulted in nine deaths.

In Linn County, 11 fatal wrecks resulted in 12 deaths. Five of those wrecks were in Cedar Rapids and resulted in the deaths of five people.

Woodbury County reported the fifth worst death toll — nine fatal wrecks that resulted in 10 deaths. Seven of those wrecks occurred in Sioux City and killed eight people.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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