Dane County saw an unprecedentedly high number of fatal crashes in 2021 caused by both speeding and drug use, according to the county’s Traffic Safety Commission, and will put four taskforces to the task of finding solutions. During the fourth quarter of 2021, two of every three fatalities on Dane County roads resulted from crashes where both speeding and alcohol or drug use were a factor, a recent summary from the Traffic Safety Commission shows.
From October to December last year, six fatal crashes in the cities of Madison, Sun Prairie and Middleton — and towns of Montrose and Dunkirk — caused 10 deaths, six of which were in crashes that involved both speeding and alcohol or drug use. Continuing that trend, in total last year seven fatal crashes resulted in 11 deaths that involved both speeding and alcohol or drug use, said Sgt. Matt Meyers with the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and also the co-chair of the county Traffic Safety Commission.
“This is an increase of over 40% from averages in the past five years,” Meyers said.
On average in the past five years, there have been 33 crash-related deaths. In 2021, that number spiked to 48, a 33% increase. Almost half were speed-related, according to a press release from the TSC.
Deadly Combinations Continue to Increase Risk
On top of that, excessive speed or use of alcohol or drugs causes increased risk for traffic crashes, but the combination of the two factors is especially lethal, according to Cheryl Wittke, TSC co-chair and executive director of Safe Communities of Madison-Dane County.
“When a crash involved multiple factors, it dramatically increases the likelihood it will result in death. In Dane County, we see our share of this, and no family should have to face the tragic results,” Wittke said in a statement.
Just last month, Madison Police Department officers stopped 32 vehicles during a traffic enforcement project on Feb. 21 on the Beltline, all of which were going at least 75 mph in the 55 mph zone. The trend isn’t unique to Madison. “We’re seeing that pretty much everywhere. It started in the pandemic (and) the theory has been when traffic congestion dropped, that created more space on the road for people to drive fast,” said Chris McCahill with the State Smart Transportation Initiative.
McCahill is the managing director of the SSTI — a joint project of the University of Wisconsin and Smart Growth America that aims to promote transportation practices that advance environmental sustainability and equitable economic development. He told the Cap Times that many cities, like Madison, have design issues where there are a lot of large roads meant for traffic and congestion, but in reality, serve as a catalyst for speeders.
“In Madison, we’re really interested in changing the designs of streets to make things safer for those walking,” McCahill said.
And despite efforts from the city to increase speed limit enforcement, especially on the most dangerous streets like East Washington Avenue, “there’s a cultural shift that needs to happen,” McCahill said.
A Focus on Equity Helps Eliminate Traffic Enforcement Discrimination
Traffic enforcement can have a disproportionate impact on people of color. McCahill said MPD and the city are pursuing equitable enforcement: focusing on the most dangerous driving and making sure drivers aren’t fined for minor offenses.
“There’s a lot to be done,” McCahill said. “We’re just really getting started with the Vision Zero action plan, but putting the goal of traffic safety and redesign front and center is going to be a major shift for the city.”
Vision Zero — a key policy platform for Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway — is a data-driven strategy intended to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries on city streets, and also improve pedestrian and bike safety in an effort to prevent avoidable fatal crashes.