Our Views: Do your part to help prevent fatal accidents

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Last Thursday's Gazette drove home good news: Wisconsin traffic deaths for the first seven months of this year plummeted 16 percent.

Safety officials believe rainy weather played a role, reducing ideal days for motorcycling. Motorcycling deaths through July 30 stood at 43, compared to 61 at the same point in 2012. Also, a few crashes involving multiple passenger deaths, including one that killed five people, inflated 2012 figures.

Lydia Mulvany of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote that report, and her follow-up story in Sunday's Milwaukee paper shed further light on state traffic trends.

Many of us can help reduce highway carnage. That's because top causes for fatal crashes include speeding, drinking and not wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets.

Wisconsin traffic deaths hovered in the mid-500s for years until hitting 601 last year. Of those, 167 were tied to speeding and 233 involved alcohol. State lawmakers have again proposed legislation to beef up lax drunken driving laws. These bills merit consideration. Unfortunately, concerns over court and incarceration costs might block passage.

For years, officials feared the proliferation of cellphones and other gadgets would boost crash rates. Studies suggest such distractions quadruple the likelihood of serious accidents. Yet the economic downturn in recent years reduced miles driven. Likewise, fewer people spent time at bars, parties and vacations, reducing roadway risks.

Other factors also are at play.

-- Transportation officials say 80 percent of Wisconsin drivers wore seat belts in 2012, up 23 percent from 2000. Still, we have room for improvement. The national average is 86 percent. Illinois and Michigan have rates topping 90 percent. National experts say we would average 44 fewer deaths each year if 10 percent more Wisconsinites buckled up. Why not make belt use a habit today?

-- Wisconsin's graduated driver's license for teens, enacted in 2000, cut fatal crashes. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of teen deaths nationwide, but one study suggested Wisconsin's law cut crashes involving 16-year-olds by 15 percent.

--Automakers are building better cars. Newer designs don't as easily crush drivers and passengers in accidents. Side airbags also protect us. This trend will continue as new vehicles replace older models. Likewise, technology will one day bring us self-driving vehicles and models that talk to each other and infrastructure.

-- Emergency crews and our investments in them deserve credit. Rescue units are arriving at crashes faster and getting the injured to hospitals quicker.

-- Roads are getting better, too. Improved analyses help traffic engineers understand where best to place rumble strips on sides of highways to keep drivers alert, where to install cable median barriers to prevent head-on crashes and, yes, even where roundabouts will best serve us. This trendy interchange might be the bane of some drivers, but as Mulvany reports, Wisconsin is among national leaders in the rate of roundabout construction, and the interchanges do reduce fatal crashes.

Icy winter roads or a steep dip in gas prices could trigger a surge in fatal crashes. Absent those factors, however, Wisconsin is on pace to keep fatal crashes below 500 this year. If you buckle up, don't drink and drive, put away that cellphone and drive at safe speeds, pat yourself on the back. You're doing your part to create good news on Wisconsin roads.

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