Transportation

Traffic deaths climbing in California – Is there a fix?

Commuter traffic on Highway 50 near the 59th Street exit on Sept. 23, 2015. Nationally, road deaths jumped nearly 10 percent in the first three months of this year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. California officials say they saw a 13 percent uptick over three recent years through 2013 and expect that trend to continue when 2014 numbers are finalized.
Commuter traffic on Highway 50 near the 59th Street exit on Sept. 23, 2015. Nationally, road deaths jumped nearly 10 percent in the first three months of this year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. California officials say they saw a 13 percent uptick over three recent years through 2013 and expect that trend to continue when 2014 numbers are finalized. jvillegas@sacbee.com

It’s an unfortunate downside to the recession’s end: As more people return to work and more cars hit the road, fatal accidents are on the climb.

Nationally, road deaths jumped nearly 10 percent in the first three months of this year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. California officials say they saw a 13 percent uptick over three recent years through 2013 and expect that trend to continue when 2014 numbers are finalized.

It’s no surprise, safety officials say.

“Realistically, when the economy started getting better, all indications from history told us there would be an upswing in fatalities,” said Chris Cochran of the state Office of Traffic Safety. “We want to keep it as minimal as possible.”

The recent increases come after a remarkable five-year stretch in California road history. Traffic deaths dropped a dramatic 36 percent between 2006 and 2010. Slightly more than 4,300 people were killed on roads and highways in the state in 2006, but only 2,739 in 2010.

That death toll was noteworthy, the fewest road deaths in California since World War II. The factors are many. The state has largely won the battle to get people to wear seat belts. Surveys show that 97 percent of drivers in the state now buckle up. Improvements in car construction, notably airbags, have helped, as have safer road designs and years of crackdowns on drunken driving.

Since 2010, however, the death toll has ticked up annually, hitting 3,104 in 2013.

By most accounts, the end of the recession plays a role. Caltrans data for the greater Sacramento region show vehicle miles traveled increased 27 percent between 2009 and 2014. And drivers report they are running into more congestion on major streets from Sunrise Boulevard in Fair Oaks to L Street in downtown Sacramento in the last year.

In some ways, the connection seems obvious: More people on the roads means more fatal encounters. But state highway officials say that doesn’t have to be the case. Having more cars on the roads doesn’t always lead to more crashes. In some instances, crowded roads can make driving safer by forcing motorists to slow down and pay more attention. (For instance, crash rates on rural roads are higher than on urban streets.)

And despite population gains, California is a far safer place to be driving now than it was a half century ago.

Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol and other state agencies have identified several trends in technology and lifestyle that have introduced new risk.

▪ Despite a state ban on drivers using hand-held cellphones to talk and text, a government survey this spring found more Californians using smartphones while driving than last year.

▪ Anecdotal evidence and preliminary numbers show that pedestrian, bicyclist and motorcycle deaths are among the reasons the statewide numbers have gone up.

▪ Increased popularity of motorcycles since the recession ended, including interest among older riders, has led to more crashes and fatalities since 2010.

▪ Officials say drugged-driving crashes are on the upswing. Some of that may stem from older drivers taking prescription drugs that affect their driving ability. Marijuana use also is likely up, safety officials say.

Cochran of the Office of Traffic Safety said it is uncertain how big a role distracted driving plays in crashes because drivers often don’t admit after a crash that they were on their phones rather than watching the road. But an OTS statewide survey this year found that the percentage of people using cellphones while driving increased to 9.2 percent, up from 6.6 percent the year before. OTS officials say they believe those numbers are conservative.

“More people have smartphones now, but the bigger thing is there are so many apps in use,” Cochran said, “so many ways of being distracted.

“Before, you could talk or text, and that was it. Now with a half-million apps, people practically run their lives off their cellphones. They check their stocks. They GPS. They play Candy Crush. They are watching movies.”

Under state law, it is illegal to use a hand-held cellphone to talk or text while driving. That law was written in 2007, just as the iPhone was making its debut. Since then, smartphone use has become universal, as has phone app use.

A state appellate court last year ruled that a CHP officer was wrong to ticket a Fresno driver for consulting a map on his smartphone. The law also is silent on whether a driver can check Facebook while driving.

A new state report issued last week on safety issues, the Strategic Highway Safety Plan, recommends assessing the potential for strengthening distracted-driving laws. But officials say they need better data on what kind of distracted driving is causing crashes before they can decide what new laws might be effective.

Before, you could talk or text, and that was it. Now with a half-million apps, people practically run their lives off their cellphones. They check their stocks. They GPS. They play Candy Crush. They are watching movies.

Chris Cochran, California Office of Traffic Safety

The distracted-driving issue may extend, for instance, beyond cellphones. As new safety technology is incorporated into vehicles – such as warning beeps when another car is close – federal officials say they wonder whether drivers may start to pay less attention to the road.

“The potential danger is that drivers could become reliant on their vehicles,” said Kara Macek of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “Until we get driver-less cars, the driver has to remain engaged in the act of driving. We are going to need to understand how drivers respond to those technologies.”

California officials say there are more pedestrians and cyclists on the streets, and more of them are getting hit by cars. Traffic officials next month will launch a public-education effort with billboards, commercials and social media outreach emphasizing pedestrian vulnerability.

“Pedestrians are on the losing end” of a crash, Cochran said. The commercials will be test-marketed in Sacramento, then used elsewhere in the state. “It is going to be all over the place; you are not going to be able to get way from it.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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