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Michigan traffic fatalities up in 2015

By: Sarah Wojcik | C&G Newspapers | Published May 11, 2016

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Michigan traffic fatalities were up in 2015, keeping in line with what is a national trend. The first months of 2016 also appear to show an increase in traffic deaths, but the provisional numbers change daily.

The harder question to answer is what caused the increase in traffic deaths.

“Things have changed so quickly that we’re just now kind of catching up on the data side,” said Anne Readett, communications manager for the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning. “We still have a lot of ground to cover and a lot of progress to make.”

The OHSP deals primarily with how to reduce traffic deaths and injuries by launching behavioral programs, Readett said. Its two largest campaigns are “Click It or Ticket” and “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.”

Readett said she hopes changes made this January to the traffic crash report form will help researchers learn important data.

Formerly, Readett said law enforcement simply checked a box that said “cellphone” in accident reports. The changes to the form will allow officers to capture more detailed information about distractions.

“We didn’t know if that meant the person was talking, texting, on a handheld device or hands-free,” she said. “Now all of those things will be on the form.”

Carol Flannagan, co-director of the Center for the Management of Information for Safe and Sustainable Transportation and a researcher at the University of Michigan, said her institute works closely with the OHSP to develop solutions.

“In general, the research seems to indicate that 95 percent of crashes result from human error, such as judgment failure, steering overcorrections or panicking,” Flannagan said.

Flannagan said there are a few behavioral patterns that reduce traffic crashes, injuries and deaths.

One of those behaviors is to wear a seat belt.

Although approximately 93 percent of Michigan drivers wear seat belts, Flannagan said more than half of those who perished in traffic crashes were unbelted.

Another behavior is to avoid impaired driving due to alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal drugs.

“I think alcohol is probably fairly well-reported,” Flannagan said.

Drunken driving is involved in approximately 1 percent of all crashes; however, it is a factor in close to 35 percent of traffic fatalities, she said. The problem, she added, is that drunken driving is not really decreasing.

Another behavior is to avoid distractions while driving.

“We certainly know from a big-picture standpoint that distractions are a major factor in traffic crashes, and that’s all distractions — whether something fell from their seat and they learned over to pick it up, or they were looking at a GPS unit or their phone,” Readett said.

Flannagan said research from 2014 showed that between 6 and 11 percent of people are talking on a cellphone at any given moment, but cellphone use was reported in only 3-4 percent of traffic crashes, possibly because drivers did not want to admit it to police.

Another challenge in identifying the causes of traffic deaths is that most accidents are the result of a large number of variables, Flannagan said.

“We have a pretty good hypothesis that, when the economy goes bad, riskier drivers start to drop out and there’s less riskier driving,” she said. “When the economy starts getting better, like it is right now, a lot of that stuff comes back in.”

She said the reason why is not definitively known, but she speculated that people may take fewer risks when they are more stressed and then ease up and become more daring when things are going better for them.

Readett added that data shows that traffic fatalities typically increase during the summer months and decrease during the fall and winter months.

“There’s more travel in the summer, and sometimes when roads are dry and it’s sunny out, people will drive faster, so if something happens, it’s a more severe crash,” she said.

In the long run, Flannagan said, traffic crash speeds, as well as overall crashes and deaths, are decreasing as more people wear seat belts and automobile safety features, such as electronic stability control, advance.

“On a large scale, things are steadily getting better, but on a small scale, things appear more worrisome because of the variability from year to year,” she said.

The best things to do for traffic safety, Readett said, are to simply avoid all distractions, drive sober and wear a seat belt.

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