AUSTIN, Texas — If the current trend continues, 2021 will be Austin’s deadliest year on the roads.
So far this year, Austin police have responded to at least 94 fatal traffic crashes that have resulted in 102 deaths. At this same time last year, there were 72 fatal crashes that resulted in 77 deaths.
Austin Transportation Department (ATD) data indicates 2015 was the year for the highest number of fatalities in the past decade or so. The expectation is that that number will be surpassed this year.
“[During the pandemic] a lot of folks took advantage of some decongested highways, being able to take advantage of that space and go a little bit faster. So, what we're seeing is when those crashes do occur at those higher speeds, in particular, the severity of injuries and the results are leading to more fatalities,” said Lewis Leff, transportation safety officer for the ATD.
The main factors leading to the spike in crashes are driver behaviors, including speeding, impairment and distracted driving, Leff said.
“When you're speeding, particularly when you're already impaired and you're distracted, going at 80 miles an hour, even just a few seconds can make a difference. And so, what we're really encouraging folks to do is make those better decisions on the roads so we can all get home safely,” he said.
New data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found an 18% increase in the number of people who died in traffic crashes in the U.S. during the first six months of 2021 compared to 2020. The federal agency reported an estimated 20,160 deaths across the country from January through June, the highest since 2006.
“This is a crisis. More than 20,000 people died on U.S. roads in the first six months of 2021, leaving countless loved ones behind. We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.
To address the problem in Austin, ATD is working with the Austin Police Department on targeted speed enforcement in certain areas at certain times, adding dynamic speed display screens and continuing the year-long no refusal initiative. That means officers can get a blood search warrant for anyone suspected of DWI.
But after the Austin City Council in 2020 voted to slash millions of dollars from the police department budget, the department has had to restructure staffing of certain units, including DWI and Highway Enforcement, to ensure there are enough officers available to respond to 911 calls.
“The three Es to traffic safety are: enforcement, engineering and education. Due to staffing challenges, APD has had to divert resources from Highway Enforcement to patrol. Although APD’s Highway Enforcement Command emphasized traffic enforcement, patrol officers still enforce traffic laws when not responding to priority calls for service,” a spokesperson for APD told KVUE in a statement.
Buttigieg said the U.S. Department of Transportation will unveil the first-ever national strategy to save lives on the roads, but the department has not provided a timeline for when that will happen.
On Sunday, Nov. 7, Texas will mark 21 years since the last deathless day on roads across the state.
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