With Christmas and New Year’s coming up, Oregon State Police Lieutenant Steve Mitchell wants to remind people to stay off the roads if they’ll be drinking.
The number of fatal crashes in Oregon has been increasing in recent years, according to data from the Oregon Department of Transportation. Mitchell said lower gas prices are making people drive more, and that may be a factor in the rising number of fatal crashes. The prevalence of traffic crashes, including those that become fatal, fluctuates from year to year, Mitchell said. But he added that having more state patrol officers on the road plays a role in reducing dangerous driving.
Accidents with at least one fatality in Oregon hit a 10-year high in 2016 — 448, according to ODOT. That’s a nine percent increase from the previous year. It’s also a 50 percent increase from the 10-year low in 2013. There were 292 fatal crashes in both 2013 and 2010.
There was a 10 percent decline in the number of fatal crashes from 2016 to 2017, however — 403. The 10-year average was 448.
The total number of traffic fatalities also hit a 10-year high in 2016. That year, 498 people died in crashes.
ODOT hasn’t published fatal crash data online for 2018 because it takes at least a year to finalize the numbers, according to Robin Ness, ODOT crash data analyst. She said the numbers change because people injured in a crash may be taken to a hospital in another state and die there later, for example.
There have been 441 traffic fatalities in 2018, according to preliminary data collected by Ness.
“There are a lot of factors that go into the dips and the trends,” Mitchell said. “But one of the most obvious ones was when we dipped to about 300 (fatal crashes). That was one of those years when gas prices were astronomically high. With gas prices being high you’re going to have less vehicles on the road.”
There was a downward trend in the number of fatal crashes starting in 2008. From 2007 to 2008, the number of fatal crashes deceased by 10 percent. Oregon’s highest recorded average gas price occurred in July 2008 when it hit $4.29 per gallon, according to the American Automobile Association.
The number of fatal crashes continued to decrease from 2008 to 2010 and stayed around 300 between 2010 and 2013 while gas prices hovered below $4.00 per gallon.
Lower gas prices have coincided with an increase in the number of fatal crashes recently, but driver choices play a big role in traffic fatalities, Mitchell said.
“We came up, as an agency, with the five behaviors we believe constitute the most fatal crashes and serious injury crashes,” Mitchell said.
The behaviors are speeding, occupant safety (seatbelts and car seats), lane safety, impaired driving and distracted driving.
Mitchell said road conditions also play a role in the number of crashes. People tend to slow down and drive less when the weather is more hazardous, according to Mitchell.
The prevalence of impaired driving due to alcohol and drugs has decreased in the 20 years Mitchell has been an officer, he said. But distracted driving has increased because of cell phones and the amount of technology on people’s car dash boards, he said.
This summer the Oregon legislature increased penalties for distracted driving. First-time offenders can be fined up to $1,000. The fine is rises to $2,500 for second time offenders or first-time offenders if the violation caused a crash.
“Distracted driving is a huge deal,” Mitchell said. “Especially with young kids.”
It’s also one of the hardest things to enforce, he said.
“If you see a marked patrol car and you’re speeding, what’s your instinct?” Mitchell said. “Slow down. So if you see a marked car and you’re talking on you cell phone, you’re going to put it down.”
Besides encouraging people to be more safe, having more patrol officers out on the highways is the biggest way to reduce crashes, he said, because people respond to seeing patrol cars.
The number of working officers may also play a role in the trends in crash data, Mitchell said. In 2008, when the number of fatal crashes began to decrease, the state hired hundreds more state police officers, he said. There were 16 to 18 officers working at the Roseburg Area Command at that time. There are currently 12.
Mitchell said he and other officers don’t want to give people tickets.
“My goal is voluntary compliance,” he said. If he can tell someone understands when he tells them the risks of dangerous driving, then he’s likely to give them a warning, he said.
He wants to keep people safe, he said. He also wants to keep the roads open. People often miss the economic costs of having to close roads and address crashes.
From 2001 to 2016, fatalities and serious-injury crashes cost Oregonians almost $7 billion in economic loss, according to ODOT.