DES MOINES — Iowa’s roads have been a little safer in 2017, one year after one of the deadliest of the past decade.
There have been 274 traffic fatalities in Iowa this year, through Tuesday, according to state transportation department data.
That's on pace to be a significant reduction compared to 2016, when there were 402, the most in nearly a decade and a 26 percent increase over 2015.
When comparing the first nine months of 2016 and 2017, traffic deaths were down 12.4 percent and seven of the first nine months had fewer traffic deaths this year than the same month the previous year.
“Right now we’re trending in a better direction by far,” said Jan Laaser-Webb, a state safety engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
If the numbers remain steady, 2017 will be similar to 2012 through 2015, when annual traffic deaths statewide ranged between 317 and 365.
Traffic safety officials are not sure why the number of traffic deaths in Iowa spiked last year and appear to be reverting to the more recent norm. It could simply be that 2016 was a statistical anomaly.
The 402 traffic deaths in 2016 were the most in Iowa since 2008. The spike reversed trends of gradually lowering traffic deaths, both in pure numbers and in deaths per miles driven. The state in 2015 had just 9.7 traffic deaths per billion miles driven, the lowest on record.
“I do think that 2016 was kind of an outlier, based on all the evidence from (previous years),” said Todd Olmstead, a program administrator with the governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau. “2016 was an outlier for us that we don’t like to see.”
Safety officials said they believe various education efforts, a new law and public interest could be helping reduce the number of traffic deaths this year, assuming the trend holds through December.
The biggest policy change is the state’s new texting while driving law, which enabled law enforcement officers to stop drivers solely for that offense. Before the new law went into effect in July, officers had to stop a driver for a separate offense and then, if relevant, cite the driver for texting.
Between the debates over the new law during the legislative session, media coverage of the new law and enforcement since it went into effect, safety officials believe Iowa drivers are more aware not only of the new law but also the dangers of distracted driving. Officials say that may be a factor.
“The public awareness that has been put out there, with the texting and driving and distracted driving issues, I think the law change, we hope, was a contributing factor,” Olmstead said. “There’s already been more citations written since July 1 then there was all of 2016. So I think that has an impact on it, too.”
Officials say they believe distracted driving — whether due to texting or other actions — continues to be a primary driver in traffic deaths. Nationally, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015, according to the federal transportation department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“It’s definitely an emerging issue,” Laaser-Webb said.
Safety officials also believe state programs designed to draw attention to safe driving practices has helped reduce traffic fatalities this year.
Chief among those is the state transportation department’s Message Monday program, in which a clever and informative phrase is posted on traffic boards across the state.
For example, this week’s Message Monday read, “Don’t throw a fit. Pack a survival kit.” Earlier this month, the weekly message referenced a Taylor Swift song lyric, saying, “Old Taylor can’t come to the phone. She’s driving.”
The Message Monday program is part of the department’s Zero Fatalities program.
“Any time we can put traffic safety in the minds of the motoring public, that’s a good thing,” Olmstead said. “Public awareness is huge. When an issue becomes in the forefront and it’s talked about, whether it’s on the news or in the newspaper or on social media or with law enforcement enforcing the law, all of those things contribute to keeping our roadways and highways safer when people are thinking about their driving as opposed to other things.”
On the other hand, safety officials say while they hope those programs are having an impact, it is difficult to quantify. And it is similarly difficult to discern exactly why traffic deaths spiked last year, or why they appear to be falling this year.
“I really wish I knew so we could continue to do whatever it is we’re doing (better this year),” Laaser-Webb said.