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Iowa traffic deaths down sharply in ’09

November 3, 2009

Iowa traffic deaths down sharply in ’09

Iowa could end 2009 with its fewest traffic deaths in any year since World War II partly because of a new “data-driven” approach to patrolling the roads, state officials said Monday.

So far this year, 307 people have died in traffic accidents. That is a significant drop from the five-year average of 338 traffic deaths over the same January-through-October period, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

A key factor: Iowa law enforcement officers have targeted high-crash areas.

“We are looking at where the collisions are occurring and what violations are causing fatalities. Then we try to step up and address those,” said Col. Patrick Hoye, chief of the Iowa State Patrol.

The drop in deaths follows more arrests for drunken driving, more seat belt usage and safer cars.

But law enforcement also has been zeroing in more on places like Polk County, the state’s most heavily populated county, which traditionally leads Iowa in traffic deaths.

The county reported 21 traffic fatalities between January and September, compared with 31 for the same period in 2008.

The Central Iowa Traffic Safety Task Force – made up of state, county and city law enforcement agencies – has made a very active effort to target problem traffic areas throughout the Des Moines metro area, said Larry Sauer, chief of the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

Statewide, state troopers made 1,670 arrests for driving while intoxicated from January through September this year, the last month for which that statistic was available. The figure for all of 2008 was 1,825.

Traffic fatalities plunged most during World War II, when gasoline was rationed. The state had 366 road deaths in 1945.

The only year Iowa had fewer than 400 traffic deaths since then was 2004, when 388 were reported.

Two key tests for 2009 will occur over the Thanksgiving and Christmas periods, when Iowa’s roads are typically clogged, said Scott Falb, a safety planner for the Iowa Department of Transportation.

A Thanksgiving weekend like the one in 2007 – which saw 16 deaths – could send the annual fatality toll soaring. But a Thanksgiving weekend like the one in 2004 – when there were just two deaths – could help ensure a post-WWII record-low count, Falb said.

The recession may be a factor in the reduction in road deaths, although it is difficult to calculate the impact, Falb said.

Traffic volume on city, county and state roads was up 1.6 percent for the first nine months of this year. But many leisure travelers have reported making shorter, less costly trips that are less likely to make them fatigued and prone to accidents, Falb noted.

Motorcycle-related fatalities, which have risen sharply in recent years, are down in 2009. Over the past 10 months, Iowa has had 45 motorcyclists killed in crashes, down from 53 over the same period last year.

Wayne Wierson of Ames, Share the Road coordinator for ABATE of Iowa, a motorcycle education and advocacy organization, said nearly 70,000 Iowans have attended programs since 2002 about sharing the road with motorcycle riders.

He said the programs have been extremely effective with young people because of a state law requiring share-the-road information to be taught in driver education classes.

“We still have a long ways to go,” said Wierson.

Alcohol is still a factor in too many motorcycle deaths, he said.

“We need to find something else to do besides going to a bike night, drinking and then riding home. ABATE is working on responsible riding.”

State government budget cuts could affect the State Patrol’s enforcement efforts, Hoye said. The Iowa Department of Public Safety has proposed laying off 20 state troopers, which would leave fewer than 350 troopers patrolling roads.

As recently as 2001, Iowa had about 450 troopers.

Highway fatalities in Iowa peaked in 1970 when 912 people died in traffic crashes. Since then, the number of people killed annually has gradually decreased.

Experts credit Iowa’s mandatory seat belt law, which has a compliance rate of more than 93 percent, for significantly reducing the death toll.

They also point to better emergency medical care, better roads, and more safety features in cars and trucks.

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