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Record rate of traffic fatalities confounds APD

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Traffic fatalities are so frequent in Austin that it’s difficult to keep up.

That much was clear at the Public Safety Commission meeting Monday, when a person who had been struck and killed by a car just that morning did not make it into officers’ tally of the dead.

As the Austin Police Department briefed commissioners on the city’s nearly unprecedented traffic fatality count, commissioners and officers alike expressed frustration at the complex issue of curbing deaths of drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Five months into 2015, 42 people have died on the road – about twice the number at this time last year.

Art Fortune, an APD highway enforcement commander, said that unlike in other areas of policing, prediction of traffic deaths defies logic. He said when staff plots the locations of the city’s traffic deaths, the dots fail to tell a story of particularly hazardous streets.

“How do you look at traffic fatalities and handle that like you would, say, a neighborhood that’s getting hit with crime?” Fortune said. “You’d go and get your analyst to run it, look for (modus operandi), maybe put a team together of officers. You’d have particular suspects developed. And that’s not (the case) with traffic fatalities. There’s no rhyme or reason right now that we can say.”

But Chair Kim Rossmo pushed back. He pointed to data he said highlighted obvious remedies: 26 percent of traffic deaths have been caused by someone who was driving without a license or with a suspended license; more than 50 percent of fatalities were caused by impairment on the part of either a driver or a pedestrian; and more than a third of motorcycle and car deaths were caused by someone who was driving without a helmet or seat belt.

“So this seems to me to point to some very clear signs of how we can reduce fatalities,” said Rossmo. “(Stop) unlicensed and suspended drivers (from) driving, control impairment levels and have people take obvious common-sense practices.”

There are some distinct temporal trends, too. From 2010 to 2014, a substantial proportion of fatal crashes (34 percent) occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. That percentage is even higher so far for 2015, in which 44 percent of fatal accidents have happened in the first six hours of the day.

Although Fortune conceded that the data point to certain safety initiatives, he said many of them have been tried by the city time and again. The department’s participation in a statewide “Click It or Ticket” campaign just ended Saturday.

“What have we done different in 2010 or the years before?” asked Fortune. “It seems like we’re doing more now than we ever have. We’ve got more initiatives, we’ve got more grants out there. We’ve got state grants. It seems to be more enforcement.”

Fortune said he has spoken with some of his predecessors, who acknowledged they also have had trouble pinpointing why fewer people die in certain years than in others on Austin roads.

Assistant Police Chief Brian Manley said the city just hit a five-year high in its monthly count of felony charges for driving while intoxicated, usually meaning the charge is a second offense. There have been 30 felony DWIs so far this month, seven more than the monthly average since 2010.

Vice Chair Sam Holt suggested a blanket explanation: the city’s swelling population. With more cars, he said, come more car-related deaths.

Fortune said that APD had not looked at the number of traffic fatalities in proportion to the city’s total population, now growing at a momentous rate.

Photo by Edward Kimmel available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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