When we talk about vehicle collisions on our roads, why do we refer to them as “accidents?”
When you hear about someone who was killed in a crash, how do you think about it? Perhaps you think about their friends and family and how tragic this death is for them. Do you think about traffic safety as an important issue of crime prevention and public safety?
Last year, 17 people died in car crashes in Thurston County. The year before, it was 23. In Washington, traffic collisions are now the leading cause of death for young people ages 16 to 25.
The concerning part is that most of these collisions were preventable. That’s right – most or all of these deaths could have been avoided. Should we simply accept these deaths as an inherent risk of driving? If we had 23 murders in Thurston County, would we react differently? What if 23 people died as a result of a disease epidemic?
Fatal vehicle collisions that are truly “accidents” are rare. Most serious injury collisions can be attributed to one or more of three factors: impaired drivers, distracted drivers and excessive speed. Often these factors combine to cause a crash. Not wearing a seat belt is also a major contributor to serious injury or death in a crash.
Experts estimate the total cost of one fatality collision to be about $6 million. This includes all direct and indirect costs such as investigation, criminal and civil litigation, property damage, medical costs and lost wages.
That means last year the total cost of fatal vehicle collisions in Thurston County alone exceeded $100 million.
Several years ago, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission started a program in partnership with the Washington State Patrol and local law enforcement agencies to decrease the number of serious injuries and deaths on Washington roads. This program, known as Target Zero, is built on a vision of zero traffic-related deaths by 2030.
To accomplish this, the program uses evidence-based strategies that combine public awareness and prevention with increased law enforcement.
In Thurston County, the Target Zero program is coordinated through a partnership between the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Traffic Safety Commission. We work together with other community leaders (such as County Coroner Gary Warnock), local schools, and other law enforcement and emergency service agencies to raise awareness among young drivers about the risks of drinking and driving, texting while driving and driving too fast.
The Target Zero team also coordinates high-visibility emphasis patrols several times a year involving law enforcement officers from every police agency in the county. Officers begin these patrols by walking through local bars and taverns to warn those who are drinking that the patrols are out.
The goal is to persuade those who are drinking to not drive. Then the officers get into their patrol cars and work throughout the night looking for impaired drivers.
While they patrol all areas of the county, the officers focus on roads that are statistically most dangerous. The goal is to apprehend impaired or dangerous drivers before they cause serious injury or death.
Soon emphasis teams will also be conducting “party patrols” in Thurston County. These teams will focus on locating and breaking up illegal drinking parties involving young people who often drive to and from these parties.
The holidays are typically a time when law enforcement sees an upswing in impaired driving and serious injury collisions. Target Zero patrols will be out in force. Please help keep our roads safe by driving sober and safely.
It could be the difference between life and death.Jon Tunheim is the Thurston County prosecuting attorney and a member of The Olympian Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.