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traffic fatalities

What’s your take? Cowboy State Daily readers respond to traffic fatality story

in Transportation/Column/Bill Sniffin
Wyoming road fatalities

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

My column about the increased danger on Wyoming roads this year generated some interesting responses from people around the state.

In that column it was pointed out that fatalities on Wyoming highway by Aug. 1 titled 92 compared to just 57 a year ago (in the intervening 10 days that number has climbed to 98). Why has it spiked so much?  My column (published on Cowboy State Daily) laid out some examples and possible reasons. Here is a collection of comments from some other folks around the state:

Vince Tomassi, Kemmerer-Diamondville:

“If the speed limit is 70, I get passed regularly by people going I would estimate 80-plus.Same for the 80 MPH sections (of Interstate 80), people are going 90. I agree with your friend about distracted drivers with cell phones, texting and driving.”

Jean Haugen, Lander:

“I have never seen the fatalities so bad, even back when my dad was a Patrolman.  A lot of the time, fatalities around here are either lack of wearing a seatbelt or falling asleep at the wheel and crashing. Wyoming used to have the reputation of having the best highways in the U.S.   It is very concerning.  It was certainly sad about those two ladies being killed that were from Riverton.”

Susan Gore, Cheyenne:

“Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak cites striking Colorado statistics, re: THC marijuana increasing traffic fatalities. THC alters time-distance perception even after the high is gone.  That is a difference from alcohol. His tragic Wyoming example is a high school senior with great life prospects going home after a graduation party.  Brian was there.”

Tucker Fagan, Cheyenne:

“I agree with Steve Peck’s editorial about information screens in cars (that was reprinted in the column). The Air Force uses displays on the wind screen to keep the pilot’s eyes outside the cockpit. Saw this several years ago on vehicles I rented but the technology has not achieved widespread use. Also since Alexa, etc. can do so many things, voice activation should be incorporated in vehicles.”

 Geoff O’Gara, Lander:

“A couple of thoughts about the rising death tolls on the roads. I think we all agree that drivers are often distracted by social media devices, even when they are specifically to aid drivers, like route mapping. Quite a few years ago I was driving back from work at PBS in Riverton and a driver swerved out of the busy opposite lane and right across my path – she went off the opposite shoulder, lucky for me she didn’t try to recover or it would have been a head-on. From the way her head bobbed up, I’m quite sure she was looking down at a screen, or else asleep.”

Here are two other elements to consider, and I’m guessing there are studies out there that I’m too lazy to look for:

1. “The ridiculously big and growing vehicles that so many people drive these days, in our comfort-seeking over-indulgence – for tourists, sometimes rental RVs much bigger than what you normally drive at home. As a bicyclist, watching them weave around, I’m terrified.

2. “The aging American population, and the enormous number of retired oldsters with the wealth to wander around the highways. The driver in the Grand Teton crash was 65. The victims were even older. I’m in my 60s now and my reflexes aren’t all they used to be. Cognitively, older folks process more slowly, and may focus less intently. “It’s dangerous out there! Take the train! (Bring passenger trains back to Wyoming!)”

John Davis, Worland

“I think the usual reason for variation in highway deaths is simple statistical variation.  That is, when you have a large number of random events, there will always be a substantial variation of incidents, simply from the nature of the randomness of chances.  Sometimes you can trace the fact, of, say, extra highway deaths, to specific causes, but not usually.”

Phil White, Laramie:

“It is good you are calling attention to the carnage on the highways.  I’m hearing more and more often from various people, especially about the Front Range madness, that the roads are simply no longer capable of handling the traffic.  They cannot be upgraded fast enough to maintain even a minimal level of safety for a population growing so fast.

“I’m sure you are right about the distractions inside cars.  More important than motorhomes, I would think, is the explosion in the past 15 years of semis on Interstate 80.  Every time I do a casual count I find that semis account for about half of the vehicles on Interstate 80 and there have been a lot of wrecks involving semis.  One of them coming out of Telephone Canyon and onto the flats south of Laramie several years ago plowed into a vehicle stopped in a line of cars because of a previous accident between grand avenue exit and 3rd street exit.  Four members of one family were all wiped out in that one.  Even big heavy SUVs and pickups are no match for semis.  At 80 mph they have no chance to avoid collisions and their mass magnifies the damages.

“As to alcohol, I’ve been trying for years to get (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) and other parties to push the Legislature to prohibit drive-up liquor store windows.  I believe I read that Wyoming is the only state that still allows drive-up windows.  It’s an easy way for liquor dealers to avoid the responsibility to not sell alcohol to someone who, if made to walk inside, would display obvious impairment.  (Of course the Legislature and the Supreme Court also have refused for years to create “dramshop law” liability for liquor dealers who sell to obviously impaired adults.  As the law now stands, a liquor store owner cannot be held responsible for a drunk driver killing another motorist, even if the liquor dealer sells liquor to and then helps the buyer get into his car because he can barely even walk).

“As to speed, I am always amazed when the Legislature raises the speed limit.  Even before the recent increases it was already well established that at night going 70 mph it is almost impossible for a vehicle to stop in time after an object becomes visible in the headlights.  When they raise the limit they are simply saying ‘We are willing to sacrifice a few hundred lives or a thousand lives over time to save everybody else a few minutes in getting to their destination.’

“I often think of John Muir’s observation after touring Yellowstone in the late 1800s from his Our National Parks (1917): ‘The regular trips–from three to five days–are too short.  Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day.  The multitude of mixed, novel impressions rapidly piled on one another make only a dreamy, bewildering, swirling blur, most of which is unremembered.’”

Larry Wolfe, Cheyenne:

“I just rode my bike on 365 miles of the State’s road (a bit of that in MT). Those of us on bikes are scared to death of distracted drivers there were many stories of close calls. Good for you for bringing attention to this.”

WYDOT increases safety message funding as highway fatalities skyrocket

in News/Transportation

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Department of Transportation spends millions to inform the public about safe driving practices, but the death toll continues to rise on Wyoming’s highways.

Sixty-two people have died on Wyoming highways since the beginning of the year, nearly double the amount of fatalities recorded by this time in 2018 and 2017 and more than triple the number of highway fatalities by this date in 2016, according to the Wyoming Highway Patrol website. Of the 62 fatalities in 2019, 29 are listed as resulting from a failure to wear seatbelts.

The increase is occurring even as the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s funding for public education is growing.But the effort to increase safety awareness is a long-term job, said WYDOT spokesman Doug McGee.

“What we’re talking about is behavioral change,” he said. “It takes years and years to take hold, and more time to measure.”

Highway fatalities fluctuate widely from year to year. In 2014, the Wyoming Highway Patrol reported 46 fatalities by May 16. That number dropped to 17 by May 16, 2016, the patrol website states, compared to this year’s figure of 62. McGee said his department has incrementally increased funding for safety messaging and public education since 2016 to encourage Wyoming drivers to be more safe on the road.

“The money comes from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — it’s all federal funds,” McGee explained. “The (Wyoming) Highway Safety Office entertains grants from all sorts of places, and the funds received are designated (for) information and education. They can’t be spent anywhere else.”

In 2016, WYDOT requested about $1.3 million from NHTSA, increasing the request by a couple hundred thousand dollars each following year. The department could receive as much as $2 million from NHTSA in 2019, McGee said.

“That money goes to WYDOT groups and sub-recipients such as the Governor’s Council on Impaired Driving and the Wyoming Seatbelt Coalition,” he added. 

Once received, the funding is used to purchase airtime on local radio and TV stations, newspaper and magazine ads and banners at sporting events — all with the intent of pushing the message of safety while driving.

“We’re in a lot of community college campuses and at (the University of Wyoming), because that is very much our target audience,” McGee said. “Sporting events are a big one, too. We sponsor media at baseball games, football and rodeo events.”

WYDOT regularly uses traditional media — newspapers, TV and radio — to spread its message, but as the world races toward the digital era, the department is keeping pace.

“One of the areas we’re increasing our focus on is the digital platforms,” McGee explained. “What the digital platform provides is the opportunity to be more targeted in our message. We can reach a specific demographic more effectively than we can with say a newspaper ad.”

The predominant message is buckle up, WYDOT spokeswoman Aimee Inama said.

“We’ve had the seat belt campaign for numerous years,” she said. “But we don’t have an exact date when it started.”

Impaired driving is also high on the list, but McGee said the fastest growing area of concern is distracted driving.

“The gross of distracted driving as an issue has grown dramatically,” he explained. 

In an effort to reduce road distractions, WYDOT started purchasing digital ads that target phone users in hopes the message will remind them not use their devices while driving.

While advertising does comprise a large portion of the NHTSA funds, McGee said the money is also put toward public education events such as May Mobilization, a nationwide effort to increase seat belt usage.

WYDOT also sets up booths at public gatherings such as the Wyoming State Fair and Cheyenne Frontier Days and sends staff to educate children about safe driving in classrooms around the state.

“We recently started one particularly interesting campaign in some high schools,” McGee said. “We reach out to the school staff to identify some of the influencers among the kids, then we get them together and take photos for banners and posters with safe driving messages on them.”

The program has seen some success with teachers and parents reporting the students respond well to the posters, and in some cases, put them up at home, he said.

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