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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: Idaho traffic fatalities at 15-year high; 258 people have died in crashes this year

Cars were back up on I-90 due to an accident just past the Idaho Street overpass in Post Falls on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. Fatal collisions reached a 15-year high in Gem State in 2021, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.   (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Cars were back up on I-90 due to an accident just past the Idaho Street overpass in Post Falls on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. Fatal collisions reached a 15-year high in Gem State in 2021, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Idaho traffic fatalities are at a 15-year high, with people not fastening seat belts and driving aggressively or while impaired leading to many of the deadly crashes, said John Tomlinson, manager at Idaho Transportation Department’s Office of Highway Safety.

Tomlinson refers to the three significant factors in fatal crashes as “belts, booze and speed.”

Idaho’s continued population growth and pandemic effects could be factors for the increased fatalities, but Tomlinson said official 2021 fatalities data and causes of the crashes will likely not be available until April.

The spike is not unique to Idaho, as Tomlinson said the nation will likely hit over 40,000 traffic fatalities nationwide for the first time in several years.

He said there have been 258 fatalities – the highest count since 2006 – this year as of Thursday in the state, according to preliminary data. There were 214 fatalities in 2020 and 224 in 2019.

Tomlinson said Idaho was one of four states in the country in which traffic fatalities decreased from 2019 to 2020.

In 2020, 43% of all Idaho fatalities were from impaired driving crashes, and only 29% of the vehicle occupants killed in those crashes were wearing a seat belt, according to ITD.

From 2016 to 2020, 34% of all fatal crashes in Idaho were aggressive-driver related, and that number jumps to 46% in Kootenai County, according to ITD data. Aggressive driving includes speeds too fast for conditions, exceeding the posted speed limit, following too closely and failure to yield, obey a stop sign or obey a signal.

Kootenai County had the third-highest fatal aggressive driving crashes in the state during that five-year stretch, with 34 fatalities. Canyon County had 50, and Ada County had 45.

Of the 34 fatalities in Kootenai County, 11 were in Post Falls, eight were in Coeur d’Alene and six were in Hayden.

Because Idaho is so rural, Tomlinson said a significant number of fatal crashes are single-vehicle incidents in which drivers lose control, overcorrect, roll and are thrown from the car after not wearing a seat belt.

Idaho is still largely rural, but the Gem State’s population is booming, which could have played a factor in the fatality spike this year, Tomlinson said.

Idaho led the nation with a 2.9% population increase, or 53,151 new residents, from 2020 to 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state has 1.9 million residents.

As for the COVID-19 pandemic, Tomlinson said traffic counts on Idaho roadways declined in the first couple months of the pandemic but then picked up again.

Tomlinson said every state in the country has seen an increase in traffic fatalities from last year.

“It’s been crazy the amount of fatalities that we’ve had nationally,” he said.

The federal government reported in October that the number of U.S. traffic deaths in the first six months of 2021 hit 20,160, the highest first-half total since 2006, according to an Associated Press story. The estimated number was 18.4% higher than the first half of last year.

The AP reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that behavioral research from March through June showed that speeding and traveling without a seat belt remained higher than before the coronavirus pandemic. The agency pointed to increasing road deaths, a trend for the past two years, on more reckless behavior on the roads.

The latest spike in fatalities came as people drove more as pandemic shutdowns eased, the AP said. Preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration showed that vehicle miles traveled in the first six months of the year increased by 173.1 billion miles, about a 13% increase from last year.

The death rate for the first half of 2021 rose to 1.34 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That’s up from 1.28 deaths per 100 million miles in the first half of 2020, the agency said.

To drive the statistics down, Tomlinson said drivers need to buckle up, avoid distractions when behind the wheel, slow down and plan ahead if they decide to drink alcohol.

“It’s that planning ahead before you go out that’s going to make all the difference in the world,” Tomlinson said.

Idaho State Police troopers joined law enforcement agencies throughout Idaho with increased DUI patrols through New Year’s Eve weekend.

Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15 of this year, ISP troopers have charged 1,453 drivers with impaired driving-related criminal offenses, according to ISP.

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