Public Safety

Iowa sees uptick in traffic fatalities in 2019

Role of alcohol in 2019's crashes not known yet

A roadside memorial leans Sept. 10, 2019, against a mile marker along Highway 30, at an intersection leading to Springvi
A roadside memorial leans Sept. 10, 2019, against a mile marker along Highway 30, at an intersection leading to Springville. The Iowa Department of Transportation said it plans to redo several intersections along Highway 30 and Highway 151, citing driver safety issues. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Reversing two years of declines, at least 336 people died in crashes last year on the state’s roads, according to preliminary information from the Iowa Department of Transportation.

While that uptick is more than the 319 deaths reported in 2018 and the 330 reported in 2017, it is about 16 percent less than the 402 reported in 2016 — a year Iowa traffic fatalities surged.

It was after the surge that a law enabling stricter enforcement of a ban on text messaging while driving went into effect in 2017, allowing officers to pull over drivers for that reason alone and slap them with $100 fines.

While no consensus in the upcoming legislative session has developed whether to further the crackdown on distracted driving, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she supports a ban on all hand-held cellphone use while driving.

Authorities say distracted driving now contributes to more wrecks than drunk or drugged driving. But what role alcohol played in last year’s traffic fatalities in Iowa won’t be known for some time yet.

“It often takes several months for this information to be routed to us,” said Iowa DOT Director of Strategic Communications and Policy Andrea Henry. “We won’t have an accurate number until midsummer 2020.”

What is known:

• The most common type of fatal crash in 2019 was a single-vehicle wreck, which resulted in 164 deaths. According to the Iowa DOT, a majority of those deaths — 88 — likely were caused by the vehicles driving off the roadway; excessive speed or a loss of control were factors in 46. Motorcycle crashes accounted for 43 of these deaths.

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• A broadside crash was the second-most common type of fatal wreck, the data shows. A head-on collision was the third most-common type.

• In fatal crashes where the use of seat belts could be determined, 127 of these killed were wearing belts and 93 were not. A 2019 survey of seat belt use in Iowa — compiled after observing cars and occupants — shows that seat belt use in Iowa was estimated at 94.6 percent, the highest rate in at least seven years.

Henry said the 2019 data provided by the Iowa DOT was preliminary and “will not be fully complete until several months into the new year when we get all information from law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and the like.”

Locally, data from the Cedar Rapids Police Department shows that in 2019 city officers worked 11 fatal crashes, two of which involved double fatalities, resulting in a total of 13 deaths.

That’s a very slight increase from the 12 people who were killed in 2018 in the city and a significant increase from the five motorists who died the year before.

According to Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow, alcohol was a factor in six of the 11 deadly crashes. In three of the fatal wrecks, the drivers experienced a medical condition that contributed. One crash involved a pedestrian, Buelow said, and another involved a dump truck that hit a BMW Mini Cooper.

The Linn County Sheriff’s Office said deputies investigated seven fatal wrecks in 2019 in its jurisdiction, one more than the six deaths investigated the year before. In 2016, Linn County deputies investigated nine fatal wrecks.

After looking at the data, Linn County Sheriff’s Office Major Chad Colston said he did not see any commonalities or patterns between last year’s seven fatalities.

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According to Zero Fatalities Iowa, a public-relations campaign adopted by state officials in 2014, 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error.

Zero Fatalities Iowa laid out five behaviors drivers can use to help lower the annual tally of deaths: chill out, drive sober, focus on the road, stay alert and buckle up.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, two-thirds of traffic fatalities involve behaviors commonly associated with aggressive driving. On its website, Zero Fatalities said drivers can “chill out” by ignoring aggressive behavior in other drivers, being courteous of others and choosing to be a little late rather than rushing.

So far this year, the Iowa DOT reported, two people have died on Iowa roads — one in Dallas County and another in Jasper County.

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

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