IDAHO FALLS – Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, traffic is free from the ice and snow of winter, days are longer and the sun provides a clear view. Drivers can travel relatively unobstructed, watching only for the occasional rainstorm and orange cones.
And yet, according to law enforcement, more traffic deaths happen during the summer than any other time of year. Idaho State police say they responded to a fatal accident nearly every day this year during a season referred to as the 100 deadliest days of driving.
Every year law enforcement at the local, state and national level use the “100 Deadliest Days of Driving” slogan to raise awareness about the hidden dangers of summer driving. It started in May, with Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Bryan Lovell emailing an alert to news outlets that extra patrols would be on the lookout for seat belt violations. Idaho State Police followed up a week later with a news conference to raise awareness about drunk driving.
Most years the slogan is just that, as the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day varies from year to year. In 2018 there were 99 days between the holidays, including the holidays themselves.
Despite law enforcement’s best efforts, Idaho’s summer has seen an increase in fatal accidents over last year, when there were 90 deaths. Idaho Transportation Department Public Information Specialist Megan Stark said the department’s preliminary estimate for traffic related deaths between Memorial Day and Labor Day is 102.
Six of those deaths came during Labor Day weekend. Idaho State Police Lt. Chris Weadick said Friday the number of fatalities was 94. He was hoping at the time that the weekend would be peaceful and the number wouldn’t rise, but several deaths over the Labor Day weekend pushed the number over the 100 mark.
According to the Idaho Transportation Department, there were 244 total traffic fatalities in 2017. The deaths during the three months between holidays accounted for 37 percent of deaths, a plurality compared to the other seasons.
Weadick said the causes of accidents are the same as the rest of the year; drivers distracted by their phones or other electronics, drivers who are intoxicated and, increasingly, driver’s who have not had enough sleep to focus on the road.
Though winter brings harsher driving conditions, fatalities are lower when snow is on the ground.
Weadick said summer traffic increases significantly with more daylight and vacation time. He said driver’s tend to travel at higher speeds during the summer, adding to the risk.
“When you add all of that on top of inattentive driving, distracted driving and aggressive driving, you can see why we’ve got a recipe for higher and more fatal crashes during those 100 deadliest days of the year.”
Lon Pyper, who owns A+ Driving School with his wife, Darla Pyper, said he gives students the same advice for summer as in winter: to increase their following distance.
“We really teach following distances. The most common cause of accidents in cities is rear-end crashes,” Pyper said.
Like Weadick, Pyper said faster speeds cause more crashes during the summer, and that drivers should have their foot over the brake pedal when they see brake lights, no matter how far ahead the other car is.
Stark said drowsy driving is on the rise, though she was unsure how many deaths and accidents resulted from it. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates there were 824 deaths caused by drowsy driving in 2015, about 2.2 percent of all fatalities.
Lovell said he’s also seen more drowsy driving, and people need to plan for sleep ahead of time if they’ll be driving.
“Everybody’s lives are busy, everybody fills their plate with a lot of places to be,” Lovell said. “People get real busy in their lives and would rather get to where they’re going than take a rest to make sure they get there safely.”
The most common cause of accidents remains inattentive and aggressive driving, however. Mobile phones distracting drivers has become an almost cliché story over the last 15 years, and handheld phones are banned while driving in 15 states but Idaho isn’t among them.
The Idaho Senate in February killed a bill that would have required only hands-free cellphone use while driving, with opponents citing government overreach. This summer Blaine County started enforcing a policy created in 2016 that banned the use of handheld devices while driving. Texting while driving is illegal in Idaho, but phone calls are not.
Alcohol use is also a factor around the holidays, especially Independence Day.
The upside to cellphones is drivers can call when they see someone else driving impaired or aggressively, Weadick said.
The Idaho Transportation Department and the Office of Highway Safety provide funding for law enforcement that allows troopers to work overtime so it’s easier for patrols to stop someone for a DUI or not using a seat belt without worrying they’re needed elsewhere.
Weadick said it’s important for patrols to stop drivers on infractions, such as lack of seat belt use, that can be the difference between life and death, as well as speeding, tailgating and other behaviors that may cause crashes.
“Right now what happens is I only have a handful of troopers that are in service, and if we get a crash over here, an incident over here and a crash over here, I don’t have any troopers who are out on the road looking for these violations that are causing these crashes,” Weadick said.