Two-thirds of Dane County Fatal Crashes Involve No Seatbelts or Helmets

For Immediate Release

For more information, contact: Cheryl Wittke, (608) 256-6713 Executive Director, Safe Communities of Madison – Dane County

Two-thirds of Dane County Fatal Crashes Involve No Seatbelts or Helmets

Two-thirds of Dane County motor vehicle crashes involving fatalities from July to September this year resulted in deaths of persons not wearing seat belts or motorcycle or bicycle helmets. This alarming trend triggered an urgent reminder from members of the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission (TSC) for area residents to remember to use life-saving measures.

The nine crashes during the third quarter of 2022 resulted in 11 deaths, according to a recent report by the TSC, a coalition of 48 county public and private organizations meeting quarterly to monitor and improve traffic safety.
“Most of the deaths involving lack of seat belts or helmets may have been preventable with the use of these safety devices,” said Sgt. Matt Meyer, Dane County Sheriff’s Office and TSC co-chair, who noted the group quarterly monitors all fatal crashes in the county, including use of seat belts and helmets. “It is alarming that seatbelt usage in the state dropped to 88.2% last year after reaching a high of 90% in 2019.”

The most recent TSC report recorded three crashes where a driver or passenger died not wearing a seat belt, required by Wisconsin law. Three other crashes involved motorcyclists, bicyclists or moped riders not wearing helmets.

Five of the nine fatal crashes occurred outside Madison: in the city of Sun Prairie and towns of Bristol, Burke, Medina and Windsor.

TSC member Sgt. Adam Zoch, Wisconsin State Patrol, said law enforcement agencies notice drivers of older vehicles are less likely to buckle up since they don’t get the audio reminder beeps. Also less likely to buckle up are those traveling short distances, he said. “Those just going down the street to the grocery store or going at lower speeds sometimes don’t bother. But that doesn’t take into account behavior of other drivers who may be speeding, impaired by alcohol or drugs, or driving distracted.”

One local physician has seen this happen all too often. “I wish I could help people understand that it’s usually the routine day-to-day driving when fatal crashes happen,” said Hee Soo Jung, MD, Director of Surgical Critical Care for UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “Most are at speeds under 40 and within 24 miles from their home. It’s never when we expect it.”

That’s one of the reasons seventeen TSC-member law enforcement agencies use grant funding from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for officer overtime to conduct high-visibility traffic enforcement monitoring seat belt use, along with speeding and impaired driving. Agencies alert the public ahead of time in hopes of achieving voluntary compliance and encouraging positive driving habits. Local police departments receiving these grants often coordinate their efforts between communities.

“There is a clear relationship between not using seatbelts and the likelihood of dying or being severely injured in a crash,” TSC Co-chair Matt Meyer said. “Persons not wearing seatbelts in Wisconsin were seven times more likely to die and three times more likely to suffer a serious injury in a traffic crash.”

In his role as a trauma surgeon, Dr. Jung has plenty of experience to know that is true. “When I hear an EMS report that someone coming in did not wear a helmet or a seat belt, I prepare myself to take care of injuries that are much worse.” He said unbelted motorists often experience more traumatic injuries from being thrown around or being ejected from the vehicle, and motorcycle riders without helmets are much more likely to have severe brain injury and facial fractures.

TSC Co-chair Meyer noted that in the last three years, two of every three (64%) of persons dying in Dane County motorcycle accidents were not wearing a helmet.

“The hardest cases for me are the ones where people–with so much left in their lives–are taken from us too early because of preventable trauma,” said Dr. Jung. “It’s my job to give patients and their families bad news. I get that. But if I had one wish, it would be that I never have to sit with your family, in that quiet room, to tell them with a broken heart that you didn’t make it.”

Helmet use is also a major factor in deaths of bicyclists involved in crashes. TSC Co-Chair Meyer said of bicyclists dying in Dane County crashes over the past six years, 80% were not wearing helmets.
Adam Brinkman, MD, Pediatric Trauma Director at American Family Children’s Hospital, stressed the importance of not only wearing a helmet but one that fits well. “A properly fitting helmet will absorb force when a moving head strikes a stationary object, such as the ground, a pole, or a car. Helmets are designed to cushion the skull and brain, which, if not protected, can suffer serious injuries. We have taken care of many patients who failed to wear a bike helmet since they were ‘just going around the block’ or ‘to a friend’s house down the road.’ Helmets save heads!” he said.

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The Facts:

• Crashes involving motorists not wearing seatbelts represented 10% of all Dane County crashes and 42% of all deaths in the first nine months of 2022. (Source: WisDOT Crash Database)
• Over the past six years, the majority (59%) of unbelted drivers and passengers involved in crashes involving death or injury were 16 to 35-year-olds. (Source: WisDOT Crash Database)
• In a six-county area including Dane, those with lower-than-average rates of seatbelt use are males (84.5%), young drivers aged 16-24 (82.6%), pickup drivers (82.9%) and local motorists not on highways or interstates (82.5%). (Source: 2020 WisDOT Annual Seatbelt Survey)
• In the last 3 years in Dane County, 273 motorcyclists were killed or injured. Of these, 64% were not wearing helmets. (Source: WisDOT Crash Database)
• Of Dane County bicyclists over the past six years injured in a crash, those aged 5 to 24 were least likely to be wearing a helmet. (Source: WisDOT Crash Database)

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Potential Interviewees: The following may be contacted for comment directly:
1) Crash trends and Traffic Safety Commission: Sgt. Matt Meyer, Dane County Sheriff’s Office, co-chair, Dane County Traffic Safety Commission, (608) 284-6876.
2) Traffic Safety Commission role/membership: Cheryl Wittke, Exec. Director, Safe Communities of Madison – Dane County and TSC co-chair., (608) 256-6713.
3) Law enforcement agency experience with seat belts, helmets, WisDOT traffic grants: Sgt. Adam Zoch, Wisconsin State Patrol,, (414) 477-0421.
4) Seatbelts and associated crash injuries: Hee Soo Jung, MD, Director Surgical Critical Care, UW School of Medicine and Public Health,, (608) 262-6246.
5) Bicycle helmets and associated crash injuries: Adam Brinkman, MD, Pediatric Trauma Director, American Family Children’s Hospital,, (608) 262-0466.

Drunken driving crashes spike in Dane County; at least 11 killed in first half of 2022

This article originally appeared on and can be found here.
Chris Hubbuch | Wisconsin State Journal

Drunken driving crashes — including at least 11 fatalities — rose sharply during the first half of 2022, according to a new report.

There were 80 automobile crashes between January and June involving alcohol, 41% more than the five-year average, according to the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission, a coalition of public and private organizations working to improve traffic safety.

While the commission is continuing to analyze the data, co-chair Cheryl Wittke said the rise in drunken driving correlates with an increase in drinking since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

“There’s just been an overall spike in alcohol use,” Wittke said.

Of 16 fatal crashes this year, 11 involved drivers whose blood alcohol levels exceeded the legal limit of 0.08%, in some cases by up to three times. Wittke said the actual number of alcohol-related fatalities is likely higher because of the time it takes to get lab results on blood drawn after a crash.

Wittke, who also serves as executive director of Safe Communities of Madison-Dane County, said the commission is working on prevention strategies to be rolled out this fall. “We believe it’s preventable,” she said.

The Dane County Sheriff’s Office and 13 police departments have grant funding from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Safety to cover overtime for high-visibility traffic enforcement efforts aimed at curbing dangerous driving.

But Wittke said law enforcement alone can’t solve the problem. Across all age groups, Wisconsin has the highest rate of excessive drinking in the nation, said Maureen Busalacchi, director of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project, which provides training and technical assistance to help communities address excessive drinking. And while the definition of binge drinking is generally four to five drinks in a two-hour period, Busalacchi said data show Wisconsinites are typically having nine drinks in a setting.

“We live in a state where heavy drinking has become normalized,” said Brian Dunleavy, whose 20-year-old son, Conor, was killed in 2012 when the car he was riding in was struck by an intoxicated driver going 100 mph on his way from one bar to another.

Lawren Prisk, 52, served seven years in prison for the crash. “I grew up in a household where my parents were big entertainers,” Dunleavy said. “We watched adults, you know, drinking a lot. They were all professional people. We thought that was OK.”

The Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project has developed strategies to reduce binge drinking by identifying bars that routinely over-serve customers, as well as community festivals that overemphasize drinking. “There needs to be community support and buy-in,” Busalacchi said. “Our civic organizations can play an important role in terms of the standards they set.”

Dunleavy, a retired Madison school teacher who now lives in Milwaukee, said with the availability of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft there’s no excuse for drinking and driving.

“I’m not asking people not to drink,” he said. “You need to have that game plan in place before you set out on the night. Your executive functioning definitely goes south after a few beers.”

Dane County Sees 41% Increase in Car Crashes Related to Alcohol Use

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.

Ending African American Deaths from Despair Opening Remarks

AAOC Ending African American Deaths from Despair – Joe Parisi, Dane County Executive, Webinar Series Opening Remarks Friday, June 5, 2020

“Words cannot express my sorrow at this heartbreaking moment in our nation’s history. Inexcusable violence against unarmed African Americans has gone unchecked for far too long. These crimes are indefensible.

We’re reminded at times like these that African American community members are in poorer health than white Americans FOR A REASON. Research on health disparities is clear: the trauma of experiencing and viewing relentless instances of violence and discrimination against people simply because of their race, along with structural racism that deprives African Americans of opportunities to achieve the same level of success as white Americans, takes a toll on African American mental and physical health.

It is in this context that I welcome you to this Ending African American Deaths from Despair webinar series. This conference has been in the planning stages for months, but it could not be more timely. Although the term “deaths from despair” was coined to refer to a recent spike in deaths among white Americans from opioid overdose, suicide and chronic alcoholism, African Americans bear a disproportionate burden of these deaths in Dane County. And we are concerned that trauma from recent events – violence plus the disproportionate impacts of the coronavirus on the Black community – will exacerbate this trend.

The goal of this webinar series is to offer concrete solutions and opportunities for involvement to prevent deaths from despair from the African American perspective. The program was planned by the African American Opioid Coalition, a group of Black leaders convened 3 years ago under the auspices of Safe Communities to reduce drug harm in the community.

I am excited to announce that this webinar series kicks off my Ending Deaths from Despair Initiative, launched with planning support from Safe Communities. In coming months we will convene a Task Force of community and clinical mental health, faith and business leaders, first responders and advocates to implement a coordinated plan to end deaths from despair:  deaths from suicide, overdose and chronic alcoholism.

In addition to work beginning during this webinar series, our action plan will include making recovery coaching and peer support available via EMS and emergency rooms for people experiencing a suicidal crisis, building partnerships with gun shops to increase safe storage options, and continuing our important work to establish Dane County’s Universal Access Center.

It is significant that this work begins thanks to leadership of Dane County’s African American community. Through this webinar series, we will learn important lessons about connection and resilience that we can apply to our work community-wide.  The African American Opioid Coalition is an innovator – and we appreciate their leadership and guidance as we move forward.

I am committed to continuing to work in partnership with the African American community to make Dane County a place of opportunity, fairness and justice for all who live here, and to work for the day when every person of color has access to the opportunity and safety they deserve, free from the trauma of racism.”

Purple Lights for Recovery

Show your support for those in recovery by participating in September’s events and lighting your business, organization or home in purple lights. When you do, you’ll be joining others who have lit the purple lights in past years including:

  • Madison Municipal Building
  • LaCrosse Bridge
  • Appleton Houdini Square
  • Google Main Campus
  • Niagara Falls
  • Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame
  • Seattle Space Needle
  • Various State Capitols

If you represent an organization, let us know about your commitment to purple lights Recovery Month by completing a short form. We’ll be celebrating your group’s building in a Wall of Fame slide show on our website.

If you are an individual, Safe Communities will provide one free purple light bulb for your home at our International Overdose Awareness Day event on August 31. Please complete this form by August 15th so we can be sure to have enough lights for everyone.

September is National Recovery Month

September is National Recovery Month

In honor of those we’ve lost, National Recovery Month is meant to find hope in the reality that recovery from substance use and mental health disorders happens. Recovery benefits everyone – families, friends, employers, neighborhoods – as well as the person in recovery.

This September marks the 33rd annual National Recovery Month to celebrate the gains made by those in recovery – just as we celebrate improvements made by people with other chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.  But unlike those conditions, people living with mental health, substance use, and co-occurring disorders often face shame and stigma.

Please join us for these locally-sponsored National Recovery Month events:


Stories of Gratitude: Conversations with Helping Professionals Who’ve Fostered Recovery

Premiering on
September 9, 2022

Join us to hear how professionals showing kindness and concern can make all the difference to people struggling with addiction.  During this series of conversations between people in recovery and the professionals who helped them get there, you’ll witness the impact a helping professional can have in a person’s life. These moving videos could be used during staff trainings to combat the ‘compassion fatigue’ hospital emergency room staff, paramedics and law enforcement are experiencing, with overdose deaths at an all time high. Thanks to American Family Institute for making this series possible.

Purple Lights for Recovery
Show your support for those in recovery by lighting your business, organization or home in purple lights.

Click here by August 15th to reserve your purple light. Arrange to pick up your light at International Overdose Awareness Day event on August 31st, or at Safe Communities’ office Monday – Friday 9 AM – 4 PM. Questions? Contact Safe Communities at, (608) 441-3060

Rally for Recovery and Resource Fair
Hosted by Wisconsin Voices for Recovery
September 10th
Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison
visit Wisconsin Voices for Recovery website for details

Viewing of Tipping the Pain Scale movie and Call to Action to Pass a Good Samaritan Law in Wisconsin
Hosted by Wisconsin Recovery Advocacy Project

Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Marcus Theaters Ultra Point Cinema
7:30 PM
Purchase tickets at

Peers in the Park

Peers in the Park Events

Struggling with addiction and looking for help and support? Join us if you’d like to talk to a recovery coach, learn about resources available to you, and be in the company of people who will walk beside you without judgment.

The Recovery Coaches you’ll meet at Peers in the Park are in long term recovery and have received special training to help you on your path, whatever that looks like. Recovery coaches do not take the place of a therapist or sponsor. Our coaches have lived experienced — they can relate to what you’re going through.

At these Peers in the Park events, Safe Communities Recovery Coaches will host a cookout picnic (free), distribute naloxone and fentanyl test strips and be on-hand to listen and help:

Wednesdays, 4-7 PM
June 29 Kick-off at James Madison Park Shelter. Please join us!
July 13 Tenney Park
July 27 Brittingham Park
August 10 Hiestand Park
Aug 24 Penn Park
Sept 7 Demetral Park



Ending Deaths from Despair Webinar Series

Upcoming Webinars

Hosted by Ending Deaths from Despair Task Force 

We’re planning our 2023 schedule. Please email us with topics you would like to see covered.

Past Webinars

You can watch any of the webinars below by clicking on the FACTv Webinar Replay text. You’ll be redirected to the FACTv City of Fitchburg YouTube page.

How to Save a Life (Episode 1)

Presenters:  Tom Duval, Injury Prevention Program Coordinator, Safe Communities Madison Dane County and Jean Papalia, Suicide Prevention Specialist, Safe Communities Madison Dane County

FACTv Webinar Replay from March 25, 2022

Intended audience: All


S.A.V.E Veteran Suicide Prevention (Episode 2)

Presenter:  Andrea Bailey, LCSW, Lead Suicide Prevention Coordinator, William S. Middleton VA Hospital

FACTv Webinar Replay from April 8, 2022

Intended audience: All


Finding a Reason to Live: Etiology of Suicide and Provider Self-Care (Episode 3)

Presenter: Meghan Henderson, MSSW, LCSW, Clinical Program Supervisor Behavioral Services, UPH-Meriter

FACTv Webinar Replay from May 20, 2022

Intended audience: Clinicians and helping professionals


The S is Silent in the Black Village: Suicide, The Unspoken Word (Episode 4)

Panel Facilitator: Ms. Charlie Daniel, Founder, African American Opioid Coalition (AAOC) of Safe Communities

FACTv Webinar Replay from June 17, 2022

Intended audience: All


Harm Reduction and Chronic Alcoholism (Episode 5)

Presenter: John Ewing, MD, Addictionologist, UPH-Meriter NewStart

FACTv Webinar Replay from July 15, 2022

Intended audience: All


Preventing Farmer Suicides (Episode 6)

Panel Facilitator: Sara Kohlbeck, MPH, Director, Division of Suicide Prevention, Medical College of Wisconsin

FACTv Webinar Replay from September 23, 2022

Intended audience: All


Chronic Alcoholism and Poverty (Episode 7)

Panel Moderator: Ernie Stetenfeld, CEO, Society of St. Vincent de Paul – Madison

FACTv Webinar Replay from October 2022 

 Intended audience: All


Trauma from Domestic Violence and the Correlation with Suicidality (Episode 8)

Missy Mael, Associate Director, RCC Sexual Violence Resource Center and Zoe Heitzinger, Prevention Outreach Coordinator, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS)

FACTv Webinar Replay from October 21, 2022

Intended audience: All


Lock, Stock, and Barrel: Coming Together on Firearm Safety and Suicide Prevention with a Physician, Gun Shop Owner, and the Community (Episode 9)

Presenters: James Bigham, MD, MPH, Clinical Associate Professor, Dept. of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and Chuck Lovelace, Owner, Essential Shooting Supplies

FACTv Webinar Replay from November 4, 2022

Intended audience: Clinicians, gun shop owners, policy makers, property managers, school staff, and anyone caring for patients (ex. social workers, medical students, nurses) – everyone welcome!


You Can Do It: A Guide to Collaborative Safety Planning (Episode 10)

Presenters: Meghan Henderson, MSSW, LCSW, Clinical Program Supervisor Behavioral Services, UPH-Meriter and Jacob Austin, PsyD, Primary Care Behavioral Health Program Coordinator, Group Health Cooperative

FACTv Webinar Replay from December 16, 2022  

Intended audience: All