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Traffic tickets sharply decline as Austin's deadly wrecks reach record high

With at least 116 deaths involving vehicles, 2021 was the deadliest year on record on Austin roads. As fatalities increased, proactive traffic enforcement plummeted.

AUSTIN, Texas — More than 100 lives were cut short last year as a result of deadly crashes on roads across the Capital City.

One of the lives ended was on Dec. 10, 2021, when Jeremy “Joe” Singleton was installing safety signs as a contractor for the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Sweet – he was quiet, always kept a smile on his face. Helpful, giving. Anything he could do for you, he'd do it,” his mother, Jennifer Simon, said.

Singleton and his colleague were working in the grassy median near the Interstate 35 northbound frontage road south of State Highway 71 when they were struck and killed by a driver.

“He had a bright future. He had dreams that [were] cut short,” Simon said. “For him to die that way, it's just heartbreaking. It's just unbelievable. I just can't wrap it around my head.”

The suspect in the crash, Cody Hobza, is facing two manslaughter charges. He is currently free on bond.

Court documents allege witnesses saw Hobza driving at “a high rate of speed” and “moving from lane to lane.”

In a statement to KVUE, Hobza’s attorney, Sam Bassett, wrote: “Mr. Hobza feels great sadness for the families of the two who died in the accident. He realizes that their loss is incomparable to the difficulties he is facing.”

Singleton’s death was one of the 116 recorded in Austin last year.

What happened to enforcement?

The leading causes of deadly crashes in Austin include speeding, distracted driving, impairment and failure to yield, according to the Austin Transportation Department.

Austin Police Department Lt. William White, part of the Highway Enforcement Command and leading the Vehicular Homicide Unit, said his team responded to an average of three or four crash scenes every week in 2021.

“In a word, I would say exhausting,” White said. “You can tell it was taking a toll both on them physically and emotionally because, you know, they see a lot as well on these scenes. They're very gruesome scenes.”

The investigators in the Vehicular Homicide Unit only respond when a life-threatening crash happens. A “staffing crisis” at APD is causing even more problems, White said.

“The chances of them being able to proactively enforce traffic laws are slim to none,” he said.

The KVUE Defenders reviewed Austin Municipal Court data for the past few years.

In fiscal year 2019, there were 65,354 traffic tickets written across the city and 14,293 of them were for speeding. In fiscal year 2021, traffic tickets written dropped to 20,397 and only 4,271 of them were for speeding, according to City data.

Credit: KVUE

Traffic deaths slowly increased over the past four years, before spiking to the most recorded in 2021.

Credit: KVUE

Lewis Leff, Austin’s transportation safety officer, leads the Vision Zero project aimed at ending traffic deaths in the Capital City.

“It certainly appears that there's a relationship between the lack of citations for certain driving behaviors and the increase we're seeing in fatalities,” he said. “Enforcement aspect is an important aspect, particularly in the short term, to be able to make sure that folks are following the rules of the road.”

But staffing reductions at APD largely eliminated the units that handle traffic safety, including DWIs.

“Nothing's going to change on our end that I'm aware of as far as staffing goes, especially with proactive traffic enforcement,” White said.

Prosecuting crash suspects

Reactive enforcement comes from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. A special unit prosecutes vehicular crimes.

“We have continued to see an increase in cases assigned to our unit,” said Assistant District Attorney Matthew Foye, who has led the unit for the past eight years.

Foye’s unit works closely with law enforcement to ensure fair and thorough investigations. It looks at every crash involving a fatality or serious injury to a first responder or child as potentially criminal.

“It's very important with these cases, perhaps even more so than some other types of crimes, to get the initial investigation done thoroughly and quickly, collect everything that could be evidence,” Foye said.

That’s sometimes difficult when crashes cause car pieces and evidence to be strewn across the road, or when a crash happens in a dark area without witnesses or surveillance cameras, he said. Each crash is still treated with importance, though.

“These are very high-priority cases. The trauma that they leave behind in the hundreds of cases I've dealt with over the years is immeasurable,” Foye said.

The pain and trauma are still very real for Singleton’s family. They hope drivers will take caution.

“People that's out there on these roads just need to be more careful when people [are] working for their safety,” Simon said. “He smiled when he was sad but, you know, he worked, and he worked hard, and he loved what he doing.”

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Bryce Newberry on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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