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

This article originally appeared on Madison.com 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.

Deadly Crashes Rising in Dane County

Oringinal article by Allison Garfield
Original Article can be found here: Deadly Crashes Rise

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.

2021 Brings Record Number of Traffic Fatalities for Dane County

Zero deaths in wisconsin

The number of traffic fatalities this year in Dane County already has exceeded the total for all of 2020, according to officials from the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission (TSC). This includes an unusually high number of pedestrians struck by motor vehicles.

Officials with the TSC report that thirty-five persons have died so far this year in Dane County crashes, more than all of 2020. Twenty-seven of this year’s deaths were within the months of April, May, June, and July. Seven of this year’s fatal crashes involved pedestrians, including six in Madison and one in Sun Prairie.

“This is an immediate public health issue when it comes to traffic safety,” said Sgt. Dennis Sieren, Dane County Sheriff’s Office and co-chair of the Dane County TSC. “We are extremely concerned about the increasing number of fatalities, despite local efforts to improve safety. Too many area families have lost a friend or loved one under tragic circumstances that could have been prevented.”

Even though 2020 saw a drop in traffic volume across the county from the prior year, traffic officials started to see an increase in total crashes and serious injuries. Despite less traffic, at the end of 2020 Dane County had more fatalities than the prior year, and this trend is accelerating in 2021. Fatal crash data reported by city and county agencies is reviewed and analyzed quarterly by the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission. Results for the second quarter of 2021 showed:

  • Over half of crashes resulting in fatalities involved a driver using alcohol or other drugs.
  • Three fatality crashes involved a semi-truck or other commercial motor vehicle.
  • Four fatal crashes involved a pedestrian struck by a car or semi-trailer truck.
  • Speeding was involved in eight of the fatal crashes, with a maximum speed of 92 mpg in a 35-mpg zone. In all of 2020 there were twelve speed-related fatalities, more than double the previous
    year (5).
  • Twelve fatal crashes involved only one vehicle or motorcycle.

“We’re not sure why the significant increase in fatalities,” said Cheryl Wittke, TSC co-chair and executive director of Safe Communities of Madison – Dane County. “One theory involves how the behavior of drivers changed during the height of the pandemic last year. Vehicle volume was down significantly, and drivers increased speed. Perhaps some drivers accustomed to fewer vehicles on the roads have not adjusted their speed and fully resumed defensive driving skills as roads became more congested.”

“The common denominator for most crashes is risky driver behavior,” added Sieren, noting that distracted or inattentive driving, such as use of cell phone or looking away from the road, is likely a
contributing factor in many of the fatalities. “Everyone needs to be more aware of their surroundings and more vigilant about safety threats.” He offered these reminders:

  • Slow down. Know the speed limit and stay under it.
  • Keep your distance from vehicles in front of you.
  • Watch for vehicles turning ahead with or without signaling.
  • Avoid alcohol or drugs before or while driving.
  • Make sure all people are wearing seat belts or motorcycle riders wearing helmets.
  • Yield to pedestrians, even if they are crossing inappropriately.
  • Pull over to use the phone, eat, smoke, or reach into the back seat.

Bicyclists, Motorist Share the Same Road, Same Responsibilities

Summer is a great time to enjoy our community on a bicycle. Bicycling is not inherently dangerous, especially when everyone follows the rules of the road. What’s dangerous are the often-illegal interactions that occur between bicyclists and motorists every day, increasing the danger for everyone. More than 90 percent of bicyclist fatalities involve a collision with a motor vehicle. According to bicycle/motor vehicle crash statistics, when an adult bicyclist is injured, it is typically due to motorist error. When a child bicyclist is hit, it’s typically the child’s. Motorist-caused collisions with bicyclists occur most often when a motorist: (1) turns left (or right) into the path of a bicyclist at an intersection; (2) fails to stop for a stop sign or other traffic control device; or (3) exits a driveway or alley without first stopping and then looking.

To safely interact with bicyclists on the roadway, motorists must follow these laws:

  • Yield the right-of-way to oncoming vehicles, including bicycles, before turning left at intersections or driveways.
  • Stop for all traffic control devices (stop light/stop signs) and yield to all traffic before proceeding.
  • Leave at least three feet between you and a bicyclist (or any other vehicle) when passing.
  • Do not exceed posted speed limits, and reduce speeds when necessary (especially at night).
  • Do not drink and drive.

Bicyclists need to follow all the rules of the road – especially stopping for stop lights and signs. Parents can do a great deal to teach their kids to be safe bicyclists, and to help children develop habits to last a lifetime:

  • Don’t allow children to ride their bicycles unless wearing a properly fitted bike helmet. (A helmet should be parallel with the ground and fit snugly.)
  • Set a good example and wear a bicycle helmet too.
  • Only buy a helmet that has Snell, ASTM or CPSC approved labels. Hockey, football or other sports helmets are not bike helmet substitutes.
  •  Teach children to be safe bicyclists:
    • Look left, right and left again before entering the street.
    • Go to the edge of parked cars to search for traffic when crossing the street.
    • Look over your left shoulder before moving toward the center of the road.
    • Be alert for cars leaving or entering driveways or making turns across your path.
    • Obey the same signals and signs as motorists, e.g., stop signs, traffic signs, yield signs.
    • Warn pedestrians if you are riding on sidewalks and paths.
    • Be sure to use hand signals when biking.
  • Make sure children are visible. Use lights and reflectors at night. Wear bright-colored clothes by day.
(Information provided by Dean Health System, Madison Department of Transportation – Traffic Engineering, St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center)