Nebraska breaks record for lower road fatalities


October 11th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – The fatality rate for Nebraska roads was at an all-time low for 2011. Officials say that’s partly due to improving technologies and, possibly, fewer drunk drivers. But there’s another dangerous driver behavior on the rise: texting.

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There’s a particular stretch of Highway 2 near Ansley, Nebraska, running parallel to train tracks, that lazily winds through the Sandhills toward Broken Bow. It doesn’t seem like a particularly dangerous stretch of road, yet it’s been the site of several multi-fatal collisions over the past few years.
The solution? Installing center line rumble strips.

Putting down rumble strips might seem like a small thing when it comes to improving traffic safety in Nebraska, but Fred Zwonechek with the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety said the small things are all that’s left.

A busy intersection in Lincoln, Neb. during rush hour. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Last year saw the lowest fatality rate on Nebraska roads since officials started keeping track in 1937, according to the annual Traffic Crash Facts report released by the State Department of Roads.
Back in 1937, there were 322 fatalities; in 2011, there were 181. The kicker is how the number of vehicles on the road has changed since then, Zwonechek said.

“We had less than 300,000 vehicles in 1937; we have 2.2 million registered vehicles today. Just gives you an idea of how far we’ve come.”

SOURCE: 2011 Traffic Crash Facts Annual Report, Nebraska Department of Roads

Roads are safer for a variety of reasons, he said. For one, drivers today have cell phones, meaning quicker access to medical care in the event of a crash. Cars have more airbags and better brakes, and more people are using seat belts. That’s not to mention the roads themselves, with more barriers, reflectors and better distance visibility than in the past.

“So you have a lot of things that are playing parts in all this,” Zwonechek said. “But when it comes down to it, the real issue is driver behavior. That’s the most difficult thing to change.”

For example, speeding contributed to more than 2,000 crashes last year. Failure to yield was blamed for another 5,200. And while drunk driving has long been a concern, Zwonechek said distracted driving is right up there.

“A person that’s texting is 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash than a driver who doesn’t.”
In fact, he said someone who’s texting while driving is more impaired than someone who’s driving over the legal blood alcohol limit.

But alcohol is still a factor in at least 30 percent of fatal crashes. In seven Nebraska counties – Scottsbluff, Knox, Frontier, Phelps, Pawnee, Johnson and Pierce – every fatal accident involved alcohol.
“On average, and this is a MADD statistic – and it’s a lowball statistic – on average, a person will drive 89 times before they’re arrested,” said Andrea Frazier, who monitors court sentencing of drunk drivers for advocacy organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). “And when you consider in 2011 that there were 12,034 people arrested, that’s a lot of people that are driving impaired.

“Comparing Nebraska to a lot of the other states, we’ve got very strong DUI laws,” she added, “but they have to be enforced.”

Nebraska has one of the highest rates of testing for alcohol in fatal crashes, Zwonechek said, yet officers still only test about 75 percent of the time, even though it’s required.

He said while some simply forget, “some of them just presume. It’ll be an 85-year-old lady from that community – everybody knows who she is, no doubt in their mind that there’s no alcohol – so (they) won’t ask for a test, even though it’s still required for them to do that. And in some cases I think they might be surprised.”

But Zwonechek said he’s convinced drunk driving is decreasing, citing the number of officers patrolling versus arrests made, though he added it’s too early to tell for sure.

“I believe we’ve reached the peak and are on the downward side,” he said, “at least for now.”

One area where the numbers aren’t so good: crashes involving pedestrians, which rose 18 percent from 2010 to 2011. About two pedestrians or bicyclists were hit per day in 2011; Nebraska is ranked in the bottom ten for bike-friendly states, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

Bob Boyce is the president of a Lincoln cycling club and a bike safety educator. He said he’s used a bike as his main form of travel for almost forty years.

“I had one collision, when I was at a crosswalk,” he said. “A car started to pull forward just as I was passing and bumped me. That’s it.”

To keep accident numbers down, Boyce said drivers need to understand that it’s safer for bicyclists to ride in the street. According to an analysis he did of Lincoln bike and car collisions, bicyclists are four times as likely to be in a crash if they’re riding on the sidewalk.

Zwonechek said the reason for the increase in pedestrian and bicyclist crashes is the same reason the number of traffic fatalities in 2012 so far is 18 percent higher than last year at this time.

“It’s weather,” he said. “It’s warmer, cars are going faster, they’re driving more frequently, people are walking – or people are outside – even at night. One thing that some people don’t recognize is that a number of these pedestrians are also under the influence, and they’re out walking at 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock in the morning.”

When it comes right down to it, he said, you’re actually at less risk while driving in the middle of winter; the highest number of fatalities occurs during the summer months.

Another interesting tidbit from the Traffic Crash Facts report: While men drive a little more than half the time, “Women are better drivers,” Zwonechek said with a laugh.

You might have heard – or made – jokes about how women are poor drivers, but in fact, men are the drivers in 75 percent of fatal crashes in Nebraska.

In the end, Zwonochek says there are four main areas the Office of Highway Safety wants to see improve: seatbelt use; young drivers; impaired driving; and speed.

“We continue to see improvements in vehicle technology, in roadway engineering,” he said. “Still, that big factor is changing people’s behavior, and recognizing that that’s the cost to us all.”

And when Zwonochek says “cost,” he doesn’t just mean in human life: the economic loss that resulted from last year’s more than 32,000 crashes reached almost $2 billion, and twenty-five percent of the cost of those crashes ultimately comes out of public funds.

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