FRANKFORT – About a decade ago, Kentucky started to see a welcome trend as the number of highway fatalities began a steady decline.
Before 2007, the annual total often exceeded 900 a year, but it dropped to 638 in 2013, which is the lowest it has been in Kentucky since the 1940s.
Unfortunately, we haven’t gone any lower since then. The number of fatalities on our roads last year was almost a fifth higher than the modern record set just two years earlier, and through the first seven-plus months of this year, it’s eight percent ahead of where it was last August.
In fact, every major category of traffic accidents is up when comparing last year to 2014, according to Kentucky State Police. In its latest annual breakdown of the state’s accidents, all 161,000 of them, KSP found that fatalities on public roads last year increased by 13 percent; fender benders rose by almost eight percent; and almost four percent more people were injured.
A closer look at the fatalities shows many similarities with previous years. Males continued to easily outnumber females more than two-to-one, for example, and the 15 to 24 age group was again the largest demographic represented, with about twice as many killed as those 65 to 74. Alcohol was also a major contributor, playing a role in more than a fifth of the highway deaths.
Of the 87 who died in an accident involving motorcycles, 57 were not wearing a helmet, and neither were any of 19 who died while on an ATV.
Crashes involving two or more vehicles were responsible for more fatalities than any other reason, although accidents involving such fixed objects as walls and trees weren’t far behind. Almost a tenth of the fatalities were pedestrians or bicyclists, and nine others died when their vehicle struck an animal or train.
Although it is impossible to calculate the loss of life, the KSP study does estimate the costs of medical care, lost wages and the property damage due to traffic accidents. It runs a year behind because of the time needed to calculate the data, but the estimates show that 2014’s comprehensive costs exceeded $17.6 billion.
Over the last dozen years, the General Assembly and our state and local law enforcement have worked more closely together to improve highway safety. That includes requiring teens to drive longer before qualifying for an unrestricted license; banning texting while driving; and focusing efforts in the field to catch intoxicated drivers and to encourage more citizens to buckle up.
Last year, the General Assembly increased the age and height limits for booster seats and set the stage for greater use of ignition-interlock devices, a move designed to keep repeat DUI offenders from driving drunk again. This year, a new law builds on that by doubling the look-back for repeat DUI convictions from five years to 10. That longer timeframe will make more repeat offenders eligible for tougher penalties.
With most schools now in session, the Kentucky State Police asked all drivers last week to be more aware as school buses complete their morning and afternoon routes. KSP noted that there were more than 850 accidents involving school buses last year, which resulted in nearly 300 injuries and three fatalities.
It may not be possible to do away with traffic accidents altogether, but there is no doubt that lowering them dramatically remains in our control if we drive a little safer, stay more alert and make sure that the roads themselves are in the best shape possible. A little extra precaution can go a long way as we try to reverse the troubling traffic trends we’ve seen recently.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.