Serious and fatal traffic collisions have gone up nationwide over the last two years, and Spokane is no exception with a 10-year high in 2021.
Fifty people died in Spokane County crashes in 2021. Statewide, there were 625 fatalities from 561 fatal crashes, according to data from the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“The highest contributing factor that we see pretty consistently is impaired driving,” said Sgt. Darren Wright with the Washington State Patrol.
Distracted driving, speeding and not wearing seat belts have also contributed to the increase, Wright said.
It’s not just fatalities that are up, but crashes causing serious injuries.
In Spokane County, there were 225 suspected serious and fatal crashes, up from 212 in 2020 and up significantly from 144 in 2019, according to WSDOT data.
The increase is similar to statewide data. There were 3,006 suspected serious and fatal crashes in 2021, up from 2,597 in 2020 and from 2,442 in 2019, despite far fewer drivers on the road in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Increased traffic fatalities during the pandemic has been a national problem, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Driving patterns changed significantly during the early stages of the pandemic, because with fewer people on the road, drivers engaged in riskier behaviors, a study by NHTSA said.
An estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020, the largest number of deaths since 2007, according to NHTSA.
The leading behaviors that led to the increase were impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt, according to an NHTSA report.
Things only got worse in 2021, with an estimated 20,160 people dying due to crashes in the first half of 2021, up 18.4% from the year prior.
Region 10 monitored by NHTSA, which includes Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Oregon, saw the highest jump in fatalities nationwide in the first half of 2021, with a 26% increase.
“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,” wrote Pete Buttigieg, United States Transportation Secretary, in a statement on his agency’s website. “We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America.”
The Department of Transportation plans to produce a National Roadway Safety Strategy to identify steps that could reduce the recent spike.
“We’re just seeing this really alarming trend in fatalities going up since 2019,” said Erica Stineman, with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
While it’s hard to point to one thing causing the increase, impaired driving is a huge factor, she said.
Many people felt that “it was kind of a free-for-all” early on in the pandemic with fewer people on the roads, Stineman said. That mentality has proven to be dangerous, she said.
Now that shutdowns have eased, people are returning to their normal commutes, said Ryan Overton with WSDOT.
However, they aren’t returning to safer driving habits. Fatal crashes have continued to rise, as have citations for driving under the influence, especially during the holiday.
The message seems to have stuck in Spokane in 2021, though. The Washington State Patrol tweeted on New Year’s Day that just four driving-under-the-influence arrests were reported that evening, even with DUI patrols out in force.
In 2020, state troopers made 359 arrests for impaired driving between Christmas and New Year’s Day. As of Thursday, statewide troopers had arrested 11,041 people for driving under the influence this year, 765 of whom were in the Spokane region.
For a third year, Western States Traffic Safety Coalition, a group of 11 states, including Washington, initiated a special effort to increase patrols during the holidays.
“Last year, there were over 10,000 people killed nationwide in impaired driving crashes accounting for nearly one-third of the yearly driving fatalities. These deaths are 100% preventable,” a state patrol news release reads. “The tragedy of these deaths is felt year-round, but for many, most strongly during the holidays.”