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APD investigates causes of traffic fatalities

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

As busy and congested as Austin streets have become, drivers have managed to keep the number of traffic fatalities from rising over the last few years.

“We’re on a four-year downward trend,” Ron MacKay, Austin Police Department’s crime analysis division manager, said at the March 4 meeting of the Public Safety Commission. According to the statistics he shared with the commission, traffic fatalities have been cut nearly in half since 2015, while the population has risen by nearly 100,000 residents.

This most recent downward trend is coming on the heels of 2015’s spike in traffic fatalities. NPR cited National Safety Council statistics showing not just in Austin, but nationwide, “2015 saw the largest percentage rise in motor vehicle deaths in the past 50 years.” In years prior to that spike, traffic fatalities were on par with more recent stats. In 2014, there were 59 traffic fatalities and in 2012 there were 78 deaths.

Commissioner Preston Tyree pointed out that while overall numbers are decreasing, the mix of those suffering fatal accidents is changing as more Austinites take to walking downtown and riding electric scooters. Austin Police Department Chief of Staff Troy Gay confirmed these observations, saying that there was a 35 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities from 2017 to 2018.

Commissioner Brian Haley wondered what other factors could be altering the mix and reducing the number of vehicular fatalities in comparison to pedestrian accidents. “Has it been long enough to tell that the decrease is in any way related to Uber or Lyft being back?” he wondered. Uber and Lyft abruptly left Austin in May 2016 after the city issued new regulations requiring drivers to be fingerprinted. A year later, House Bill 100 overrode the city’s regulations for ride-hailing apps and Uber and Lyft came back to town.

While APD staff noted that any alternatives that help people avoid drinking and driving is positive, no studies have specifically examined the correlation between the reinstatement of these services and the reduction of alcohol-related crashes.

The other “X factor” in the mix are the scooters.

“Are you seeing any uptick in scooter accidents?” Commissioner Haley asked. While both APD and county Emergency Medical Services are tracking scooter accidents to build a database of information, EMS Assistant Chief Jasper Brown did note that extremity injuries are more common than fatalities by a wide margin, and of those, head injuries make up 45 percent of the total.

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Brown also noted that they are working with the county attorney to determine how to categorize electric scooters going forward in order to appropriately enter accidents into the dataset.

This categorization will become important since Commissioner Ed Scruggs noted that Council is expected to take up four new scooter-related regulations at the end of the month. While the Austin Transportation Department reports that Austin had over 2.5 million electric bike and scooter trips since April 2018, Scruggs noted that it would be wise to wait for more data on safety concerns like unsafe riding behavior before making any restrictive decisions regarding this popular new form of transport.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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