Patrol sees distracted driving, higher speeds adding to fatalities | Govt-and-politics

Memorial Day marks the start of the summer travel season and AAA is forecasting holiday weekend traffic will return to near pre-pandemic levels.

It predicts nearly 40 million people nationwide will mark the unofficial start of summer by traveling 50 miles or more from home. That’s an 8.3% increase over 2021 and about the same as 2017 traffic levels.

The higher traffic volumes raise safety concerns, especially because of an increase in distracted driving.

“What we’re seeing on the roadways is there’s plenty of distracted driving,” said Sgt. Alex Dinkla of the Iowa State Patrol. That, along with more speeding, is leading to a rising fatality rate.

Already this year, there have been 110 fatalities on Iowa roads, which is 15 more than a year ago at this time and 29 more than in 2020, according to Iowa Department of Transportation data. It is in line with the 107 and 106 fatalities in the first five months of 2019 and 2018, respectively.

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Based on the current number, Dinkla said Iowa is on track to see 360 fatalities this year. In recent years, fatalities have been as low as 319 in 2018 to 355 in 2021.

“So that’s obviously alarming for us and we’re going to be out there heavy this weekend,” Dinkla said.

The holiday weekend enforcement will be consistent with the patrol’s “Side With Us” initiative, which stands for seat belts, impaired driving, distracted driving and excessive speed. That doesn’t apply only to enforcement, but the patrol’s legislative goals and educational efforts, Dinkla said.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, 2,880 people died nationwide in distraction-related crashes in 2020. Distracted driving fatalities increased 12% during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite Americans driving 344,000 fewer miles than in 2019, distracted driving fatalities remained constant.

The most obvious contributing factor, Dinkla said, may be the cellphone.

“So much of our lives are committed to having to use the cellphones, whether it be social media, whether it be shopping or whether it be working,” he said. “When people need to do that, they’re choosing to do it while they’re driving. Unfortunately, those two tasks don’t go well together.”

Not every distraction leads to a fatality. In some cases, a driver may simply drop off the side of the road. Dinkla and the patrol don’t have hard numbers, but the belief is distraction-related crashes are “way underreported,” especially if there are no injuries.

In Iowa, he explained, law enforcement will get a search warrant to examine a phone if they believe it was a factor in a fatal crash. In other cases, “we may ask a few questions” but are unlikely to dig deeper.

In Iowa, the NHTSA reported 32 distraction-related fatalities in 2019-20, which was 38th highest among the states when adjusted for miles driven. Iowa’s distracted driving fatality death rate per billion miles driven was 0.51. New Mexico’s rate was more than 10 times that – 5.36 – with 276 deaths. Mississippi and Rhode Island had the lowest rate 0.28 with 28 and four deaths, respectively.

Californians logged the most miles – nearly 641 million – but ranked 46th for distracted driving fatalities. Drivers in Texas logged 100 million fewer miles but the state ranked 13th, the NHTSA said.

Another troubling sign, Dinkla said, is fatalities among drivers not using seat belts. Iowa has a seat belt law compliance rate of more than 90%, he said, but nearly half of all fatalities occur among those not buckling up. So far this year, victims were using seat belts in 39 fatalities. In 41 cases, they were not. The other fatalities involved motorcyclists, pedestrians or that the seat belt use was unknown.

In addition to distracted driving and lack of seat belt use, Dinkla added speed to the list of factors in Iowa’s fatality rate. That may be a “hangover” from the height of the pandemic, he said.

“When our troopers are pulling folks over at what we call these egregious speeds, some of the comments out there are, ‘We didn’t think you’d be out here,’ or ‘We didn’t think that you guys were actually working,’” he said.

Troopers indeed are working. In addition to their usual enforcement efforts they will be conducting over the holiday weekend, a “Click It or Ticket” enforcement will be underway with zero tolerance for drivers who are not buckled, speeding, or driving while distracted or impaired, Dinkla said.

In Iowa, the maximum penalty for a seat belt violation is $135.50.

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