Wisconsin Sees Sudden Rise in Traffic Deaths

Teen fatalities increased speeds on rural roads, alcohol use cited reflect trend;

More people are dying on Wisconsin roads this year than at any time in the last 20 years, state officials warned Tuesday.

A dangerous mixture of speed, alcohol, youth, testosterone and low seat belt use appears to be fueling the deadly crashes, the state Department of Transportation said.

And the three recent crashes that killed 12 teenagers in five weeks could be just the beginning of a bloody year to come, authorities say.

“If the current trends continue, we will kill 1,000 people on the roads of this state” in 2000, said John Evans, state director of transportation safety.

Transportation Secretary Terry Mulcahy has summoned law enforcement and transportation officials to a statewide traffic safety summit to discuss the problem todayin Green Bay.

During the first 4 1/2 months of this year, 272 people died in traffic crashes, up more than 33% from the same period last year, state figures show. At that rate, traffic deaths this year could approximate the 998 fatalities of 1979 – up by more than 250 from last year’s 745, said Dennis Hughes, DOT chief of safety policy analysis.

“Two decades of highway progress may get wiped out this year if we can’t stem the tide,” Hughes said.

Because crashes typically rise in warmer months, when driving increases, the worst could still be ahead, Hughes warned.

Nearby states aren’t seeing similar increases. Traffic deaths in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota are about equal to or lower than totals for this time last year, according to authorities in those states. Iowa figures weren’t available Tuesday evening.

“We’re setting records, and frankly, it’s not the type of notoriety we want,” Mulcahy said in a prepared statement.

Perplexed by the mounting death toll, authorities are studying some of the factors that could be contributing to the trend. Among them:

Speed

For the first four months of this year, speed was a factor in 37% of all fatal crashes, continuing a trend that saw speed-related crashes rise 11% last year. The average for the last five years is 35%.

And traffic speeds themselves are increasing: On rural four-lane highways, including interstates, 15% of all drivers were traveling 75 mph or more during March and April. At the same time last year, 15% were driving 74.5 mph or more, while for 1998 the figure was 73.5 mph, Hughes said.

That’s particularly distressing because traffic speeds – and crashes – usually drop in colder months, Evans and Hughes said. But this winter, traffic speeds actually increased in January, boosting the risk on icy and snowy roads, they said.

Fatal crashes are most common on rural highways, where speeds are higher than on city streets, Hughes said. The three crashes that each killed four teens this year were all on rural roads. Also, 21% of this year’s crashes have been on rural town roads, up from 14% last year.

Alcohol

Drivers had been drinking in 36% of all fatal crashes in the first four months of this year, up from 32% last year – but not much different from the 37% average for the past five years.

The four teens who died near Neillsville May 7 collided with a repeat drunk driver’s vehicle, authorities said. Tough new penalties on repeat drunk drivers don’t take effect until next year.

Youth

As of Monday, 54 of this year’s crash victims were between the ages of 15 and 19, compared with 93 for all of 1999.

A 16-year-old was at the wheel of the car that went out of control near Rhinelander on April 4, killing her and three teen passengers. And a 17-year-old driver apparently ran a stop sign in the crash that killed him and three other teens near Kaukauna May 9, authorities said.

New restrictions on teen drivers are starting this year, but most of the rules don’t take effect until Sept. 1.

Seat belts

Among this year’s traffic victims, 67% were not wearing seat belts, up from 65% last year and 63% in 1998.

Authorities say not wearing a seat belt increases the risk of being thrown from a vehicle and killed in a crash. Doctors and law enforcement officers say that was a major reason why seven magazine sales agents died in a 1999 van crash near Janesville.

Gender

Men constitute 70% of this year’s traffic victims, DOT spokeswoman Christi Powers said. That figure is usually closer to 65%, Hughes said.

DOT officials have not tried to cross-tabulate the figures to find out if the factors are overlapping and if, for example, reckless male teenagers are getting drunk, driving too fast and causing fatal crashes. Such an analysis may not be statistically valid, Hughes warned.

Still, authorities hope today’s summit will craft a strategy that targets the key ingredients in the traffic death increase, Evans said.

“It’s almost a death wish to get in a vehicle without a seat belt, exceed the speed limit or to drink and drive,” Mulcahy said. “Motorists are taking tremendous risks, and it’s showing up in the number of lives lost on Wisconsin roads.”

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 17, 2000.

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