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Fatal car crashes in NC are down. But traffic experts are still concerned

Trucks and cars are the main source of pollutants that affect the Charlotte region's air quality.
David Boraks
A highway in Charlotte.

Fewer people have died in car accidents in North Carolina so far this year. According to state data, there were 1,234 fatal crashes between Jan. 1 and Oct. 27. That’s about 8% fewer than the same period last year. Deaths from drunken driving have also dropped. But despite the good news, traffic experts aren’t celebrating. It’s something The Charlotte Observer’s Ames Alexander recently wrote about, and he joins me now.

Marshall Terry: So what's going on here, Ames? This seems like news that traffic experts would be happy about.

Ames Alexander: Well, here's why they're not overjoyed — while the pace of traffic deaths is down from 2022, it’s considerably higher than any of the 10 years before the pandemic. So traffic experts are worried that the larger number of fatal crashes has become a trend and not just a pandemic-related anomaly.

Terry: Now, in your story you report dangerous drivers are mainly to blame for fatal accidents. And you quote the director of the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program, Mark Ezzell, as saying “We got away with having awful driving habits in 2020. And those have continued.” What did he mean by that?

Alexander: Ezzel was talking about things like speeding and distracted driving and not wearing seat belts. Extreme speeding really took off during the pandemic. We had a lot of drivers who took advantage of the more open roads to really fly, and the number of speeding-related deaths has remained quite high since then.

Terry: You just mentioned extreme speeding, which I wanted to bring up next. An investigation done by The Charlotte Observer and The News and Observer of Raleigh in 2021 found extreme speeding in North Carolina has risen sharply. Well, what is extreme speeding exactly?

Alexander: Let's face it, most drivers speed a little from time to time. But extreme speeding is where people drive 20, 30, even 80 or more miles over the speed limit. And that's still happening way too often. Just last month, a woman lost control of her car while driving 113 mph on a 45-mph road in Durham. And the car flew across the median and into a tree, and the crash killed a 22-year-old passenger and injured two others. The driver in that case, by the way, has at least three prior speeding convictions, and one of them was for driving over 100 mph.

Terry: WFAE has reported on the sharp decline in traffic enforcement citations in recent years. What role does that play, and what are police doing about speeding?

Alexander: We've seen the same thing you have. The number of speeding tickets issued statewide dropped significantly in the years after 2016. That matters because research has shown that conspicuous traffic enforcement reduces speeding and saves lives. And a lot of that comes down to staffing.

Workloads for law enforcement agencies have increased far faster than staffing, and some police departments have acknowledged that they've shifted their focus from things like speeding to other priorities — such as domestic violence, drug distribution and other felonies.

Terry: Well, one thing I found really surprising in your story is that almost half of the people who were killed in car crashes last year in North Carolina were not wearing a seat belt. So why aren't people buckling up?

Alexander: Your guess is as good as mine on that one. This baffles Mark Ezzell, too. We should note that the large majority of people are wearing seat belts. Surveys indicate that about 90% of people wear seat belts in North Carolina. But as you point out, 45% of people killed in crashes last year who had access to a seat belt weren't wearing one.

Terry: Well, lest it be all doom and gloom, you report alcohol-related deaths are down significantly. There were 261 between Jan. 1 and Oct. 27, according to state data. That's about one-third lower than the same period last year. Do we know what's behind that?

Alexander: Whether that's just a temporary blip or the start of a trend, we don't yet know. Ezzel acknowledges that some of that decline may simply be good luck. But he notes that driving while drunk is no longer as socially acceptable as it once was, and I imagine some of that's due to public safety messages and the many news stories that have highlighted the dangers of drunk driving.

Terry: So what's the takeaway from all of this, Ames? What are traffic experts saying?

Alexander: They're saying it's going to take many things to reduce the death toll — better driving habits, strong enforcement, safer roads, safer cars. But Ezzel thinks there's reason for hope. Passenger jet crashes once happened almost every year. But now they're extremely rare. It's been 14 years since the last fatal crash involving a U.S. airline. So Ezzel asks a good question: If we can make the airlines safer, can't we make automotive travel safer, too?

Terry: And what's the answer there? I mean, is this something that has the ear of lawmakers?

Alexander: It does to a certain extent, but frankly lawmakers have not done a lot to change the laws. They haven't done a lot to increase law enforcement staffing. A lot of this, I really think is going to come down to drivers. I mean, let's face it, most of these deaths are due to really dangerous driving. So without that, I don't see the number of fatal crashes dropping a lot.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.