Traffic deaths statewide have jumped more than 12 percent over last year and in Clark County fatalities have more than doubled.
“It’s alarming. It’s extremely alarming,” said Lt. Brian Aller with the Ohio State Highway Patrol Springfield Post of the Clark County fatalities.
So far this year 870 people have been killed on roadways in Ohio. That’s up from 773 at the same time last year.
In Clark County the number of traffic deaths have increased from just seven in 2014 to 18 so far this year.
In 2013 Ohio legislators increased the speed limit on highways from 65 to 70 mph. It also rose to 60 mph on rural divided highways.
There’s not enough data to determine what role higher speed limits may have had on crashes, officials said. While higher speed crashes often result in more injuries and deaths, investigators believe an increase in drunken driving and motorists not wearing their seat belts is a more likely cause of the increased fatalities.
Anne T. McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, predicted before the changes that higher speeds would make the roads more dangerous and lead to more crashes and deaths.
“There’s a large body of research that shows that there’s this trade off when you raise the speed limit that, yes people may get to where they’re going a little faster, but inevitably they go faster, not just the new speed limit, but faster than that and eventually deaths and injuries go up,” she said.
But McCartt added that knowing precisely the cause of rising traffic deaths is challenging as other factors such as distracted driving and increased travel due to an improved economy play a major role.
“When the economy improves more people drive, crashes go up, deaths may go up,” McCartt said.
Injury accidents and traffic deaths are up nationwide.
The National Safety Council estimated traffic deaths rose 14 percent higher during the first six months of this year from the same period in 2014, and serious injuries are 30 percent higher.
Many reasons exist for the increase, council leaders said, including an improving economy and lower gas prices leading to more miles traveled.
Aller and Sgt. Vincent Shirey said reports showed midway through the year that the numbers of impaired drivers and those driving without wearing seat belts were up significantly compared to previous years.
“People just simply aren’t doing the easy thing of buckling up and folks aren’t using a designated driver, calling a taxi or not drinking and driving,” Shirey said.
The state patrol and Ohio Department of Transportation launched an initiative in June showing the number of traffic fatalities for 2015 on 130 message boards. Aller hopes the message boards cause drivers to pay attention and be safe.
“Especially people going back and forth to work and traveling. You see that and maybe it kind of hammers it home a little bit,” Aller said.
Traffic deaths were significantly higher during January, February and May of this year compared to 2014, according to a joint statement from the highway patrol and ODOT.
May was the worst May for traffic deaths in a decade. The largest increase occurred among drivers younger than 25. Fatal crashes involving alcohol tripled, the joint statement says, and the number of deadly crashes involving people not wearing a seat belt doubled during the month of May.
A total of 1,420 crashes occurred in Clark County last year and local motorists appear to be on pace to surpass that figure.
When cars pass by cruisers at 70 mph or more, Aller said it’s scary because it causes cruisers to sway back and forth. But he said he doesn’t think the increased speed limit is the main cause of the rising deaths.
About 50 to 60 percent of crashes involve impaired drivers, Aller said.
Former state Rep. Ross McGregor voted in favor of the increased speed limit before his term ended. Neighboring states increased speed limits, he said, and based on his personal driving experience he believed an increase could be done responsibly.
He said he hasn’t seen data to determine the role the increased speed limit might have played in collisions.
State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, said nine months ago he would have blamed the jump in crashes and deaths on speed.
But since he began traveling to Columbus on Interstate 70, he’s seen motorists speeding, weaving in and out of traffic like a “video game” and looking at their phones while driving.
“It’s scary,” Koehler said. “I would say we don’t have a problem with speed as much as we have with people who are distracted.”
Clark County-Springfield Transportation Coordinating Committee Director Scott Schmid agreed.
In 2015, Schmid said only two of the 17 fatal crashes have occurred on the freeway.
One fatal accident in which alcohol was suspected occurred on I-70 and the other occurred on Ohio 4 near George Rogers Clark Park in September when the driver veered into the median and over the bridge.
“A lot of it is driver inexperience. Nothing has come across here that I’ve seen that particularly says it’s speed-related other than the fact that high speed crashes don’t end well,” Schmid said.
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