Traffic deaths hit the brakes

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Kryssy Pease
Monday, February 1, 2010

On the afternoon of Oct. 5, Douglas Meyers’ pickup struck a bridge abutment on rural Cemetery Road in Marinette County.

Meyers, 47, the father of three sons, died at the scene.

“I believe he would be alive if there was just a guard rail there,” Meyers’ wife, Traci, said of the crash, which occurred in dry weather on a straight stretch of road in the town of Middle Inlet in northeastern Wisconsin. “That accident shouldn’t have happened, and I believe this could happen to someone else if it’s not fixed.”

In 2009, Marinette County reached a grim milestone by tying an all-time record of 18 traffic deaths—a toll that included a crash early in the year near Peshtigo in which five family members were killed by a drunk driver.

But overall, traffic deaths in Wisconsin were down in 2009 to the lowest level in 65 years. The state Department of Transportation has reported a preliminary total of 547 deaths on Wisconsin’s roads last year, 7 percent lower than 2008’s total of 587. Traffic deaths were not down everywhere last year, however. The tolls in Marinette and 11 other mostly rural counties—Buffalo, Calumet, Grant, Green Lake, Iowa, Lafayette, Monroe, Pierce, Sheboygan, Walworth and Washington—surpassed their average annual totals of the previous five years.

An analysis by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism of 10 years of traffic fatalities, from 1999 through 2008, shows that drivers in Wisconsin rural counties continue to die at a high rate even while the overall number of traffic fatalities in the state has fallen to one of the lowest points ever. Among the Center’s findings:

-- Crashes killed a total of 7,571 people during the period. The single deadliest year was 2003, when 836 people lost their lives on Wisconsin roads.

-- Travel in rural counties is significantly more dangerous than travel in more urbanized counties.

-- For every mile of travel, motorists in Menominee County, the state’s most dangerous county for travel, were nearly eight times as likely to die as in La Crosse County, the state’s safest county. Menominee County is entirely rural while La Crosse is Wisconsin’s 12th largest city.

-- Alcohol was a factor in at least 79 percent of traffic fatalities in Florence County, the highest percentage in the state. Statewide, the number was 40 percent. Florence County, like Menominee, is entirely rural and has no incorporated communities.

-- Travel became safer, as the statewide fatality rate dropped to one death per 100 million miles traveled in 2008 from a decade high of 1.4 in 2003.

Vehicle safety improvements and driver behavior, including fewer miles driven and slower speeds, have contributed to the decline in Wisconsin’s traffic fatalities, said Dennis Hughes, chief of safety programs for the state DOT.

Rural roads most dangerous

Rural crashes tend to be more severe, mostly due to the higher speeds and high occurrence of head-on collisions, Hughes said. Other factors include the fact that crashes on rural roads are less likely to be seen by others who could call for help. And emergency response time and level of available medical care may vary widely in rural versus urban areas. The same crash that might result in a relatively minor injury in Milwaukee County could prove fatal in Sawyer County, Hughes said.

“Bottom line, some people die as a quirk of geographic fate,” he said. “The injury they suffered was in the wrong place at the wrong time. To some degree, it’s the geography of northern Wisconsin that works to its disadvantage for survivability.”

Travel is most deadly in Menominee County, Wisconsin’s smallest county with fewer than 4,700 residents. The county is dominated by the Menominee Reservation and is located about 40 miles northwest of Green Bay. The fatality rate in Menominee County for 1999 through 2008 was 4.6 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel—3.5 times as high as the statewide 10-year average of 1.3 deaths.

La Crosse County recorded the state’s lowest fatality rate over the same time period at 0.6 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. Seven mostly urban counties had 10-year fatality rates under 1.0: Brown, Dane, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Winnebago.

The safety disparity between rural and urban road travel is not unique to Wisconsin. According to the latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 57 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities took place in rural areas in 2007, though rural roads accounted for only 40 percent of vehicle miles traveled. In Wisconsin in 2007, 66 percent of traffic fatalities took place in rural areas, while rural roads accounted for 47 percent of vehicle miles traveled.

Meyers’ widow said her husband was a kind, gentle man with a huge heart who would want something good to come from his death. “He helped people whenever possible. If his story can bring attention to these unsafe roads and save someone’s life,” Traci Meyers said, “it’s what he would want.”

Meyers’ funeral in October was held in the village of Wausaukee, population 556.

Eight hundred people attended.

Last updated: 1:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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