FRANKFORT – For nearly a decade now, Kentucky has made significant progress when it comes to reducing the number of traffic fatalities in the state. Totals that topped 900 annually between 2002 and 2006 dropped to 638 in 2013, a number not seen since the late 1940s.
That downward trend, unfortunately, has begun to move in the other direction. Last year’s total was 34 higher than 2013’s, and through the first week of October, we’re 58 traffic deaths ahead of the same point 12 months ago.
According to Kentucky State Police and Kentucky Office of Highway Safety (KOHS), most of the increased number came during this past summer. One underlying factor may be that we’re driving more because of relatively low gas prices.
It’s no consolation, but Kentucky is not alone in seeing an uptick. Preliminary estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show traffic fatalities nationwide were up nearly 10 percent during the first three months of this year.
What is especially frustrating is that many of these deaths could be prevented. Nearly 40 percent of those who died this year on Kentucky highways were not wearing seatbelts, and more than 100 fatalities had alcohol as a factor. Of the 64 motorcyclists killed, 44 were not wearing a helmet, and last year, 20 pedestrians died because they were wearing dark clothing at night or were otherwise not easily seen.
In an effort to bring these numbers down, the state holds several campaigns a year designed to raise awareness and reduce the number of people driving under the influence. In late August and early September, the “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” program accounted for more than 1,400 arrests.
Through the middle of this month, law enforcement will focus on distracted driving in those counties that have the highest number of incidents in this category. Most of November will also be dedicated to getting more rural drivers to use their seatbelts.
Recently, KSP released its latest annual report on traffic accidents in Kentucky. This publication compiled data on every single one investigated in 2014, all 151,000 of them.
This work shows us that, when just focusing on fatalities, males outnumber females by more than two to one. More people died hitting a fixed object like a tree rather than another vehicle, and more fatalities occurred in rural rather than urban areas, although urban areas were home to many more accidents resulting in injuries.
Over the past decade, the General Assembly has passed a series of laws designed to keep our highways safe. Those range from extending the time it takes 16-year-olds to get an unrestricted license to increasing seatbelt use and barring texting while driving.
This year, we added two more laws to that list. The first extends the height and age requirements for booster seats for younger children not quite ready for seatbelts designed for adults. The second will increase use of ignition-interlock devices to help make sure convicted drunk drivers do not drive drunk again if granted a hardship license.
We will of course continue looking for other ways to build on these laws in the years ahead. While zero traffic fatalities may not be possible, that is the goal we all want to achieve.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.