This article originally appeared in the Capital Times and can be found here.
By Allison Garfield
Dane County has seen a 41% increase in the number of car crashes related to alcohol use in 2022 compared to the previous five years, a new Traffic Safety Commission analysis found.
In total, 80 crashes from January to June involved alcohol use, compared to the previous five-year average of 57, including crashes resulting in injury or death.
While there have been 16 fatal crashes in the county this year, of those, 11 involved alcohol use.
Cheryl Wittke is a co-chair on the commission and executive director of Safe Communities of Madison-Dane County, a local nonprofit coalition of over 350 organizations working to increase traffic safety. She said the county’s trend is “disturbing” and “devastating.”
“We continue to see excessive use of alcohol as a factor in most crashes, and it doesn’t have to happen. We really can’t lose sight of the impact that the crashes have, especially on the victims and the families,” Wittke said.
Most of the Dane County fatal crashes occurred outside Madison in Fitchburg, the village of Blue Mounds, and towns of Oregon, Vienna, Dunkirk, Rutland, Dunn and Albion.
While the Traffic Safety Commission is working to determine the cause of the spike, Wittke speculated it has to do with increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic.
Alcohol is ingrained in Wisconsin’s culture; the state has the highest rate of excessive alcohol consumption in the nation, according to data from the United Health Foundation.
That also means challenges from excessive drinking appear particularly acute, as well. From 2000 to 2010, alcohol-induced deaths in the state increased by 26.6%, according to a Wisconsin Policy Forum report. Then, from 2010 to 2020, those deaths more than doubled, increasing by 115.4%.
And alcohol sales continued to climb well into the pandemic.
“As a culture, we have been drinking more alcohol during the pandemic. Already, we were consuming more previous to that, but the pandemic really amped things up,” Wittke said. “The speculation is that’s part of what’s driving the increase in in these fatalities and alcohol-related crashes.”
She said it’s time for Wisconsinites, law enforcement and local officials to “take a step back” and examine the dangerous effects of drinking and driving.
Thirteen Dane County police departments, the county Sheriff’s Office — all of which are TSC-members — have grant funding from the state’s Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Safety to cover police overtime for traffic enforcement efforts aimed at curbing dangerous driving behaviors.
Wittke contended much more needs to be done.
“We can’t enforce our way out of this problem. There just will never be enough police resources,” she said. “That’s what’s really exciting about the Traffic Safety Commission … we’ll be figuring out how to how to implement some strategies to address the problem.”
The upward trend is a continuation of one Dane County saw last year as well, with an unprecedentedly high number of fatal crashes in 2021 caused by both speeding and drug use. As a result, the TSC gave four task forces the job of finding solutions.
She said TSC and all its local partners will have to think creatively to address the trend, but the first step is awareness and education.
“(We’re) putting it back on the radar that this is not acceptable, and it’s definitely going the wrong direction,” Wittke said.
The city’s Vision Zero initiative aims to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries on city streets to prevent avoidable fatal crashes using data-driven strategy. A key policy platform for Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, her office did not respond to questions of how the initiative intends to address the major spike in alcohol-related crashes by publication.