DES MOINES — Iowa is on track to record the fewest traffic fatalities in at least the past six years, a trend closely mirroring the national trend.
The state may still, however, record a higher-than-average ratio for fatal accidents per 100,000 population as compared to the country, as it has every year since 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In 2007, Iowa recorded 397 traffic fatalities. That consistently fell for the next four years to 366, 347, 361 and 321, with an uptick in 2012 of 334. If the state stays on its current pace, it will end the year with 312 fatalities.
Nationwide, fatalities followed the same trend with 37,435 in 2007, followed by 30,296 in 2008, then 30,862 in 2009 and 34,172 in 2010. In 2011, it fell again to 29,757 before heading higher in 2012 to 33,561.
“Our department believes that the fatality rate is going down due to enforcement efforts, education of the motoring public and also the improvements in the production of vehicles,” said Sgt. Steve Bright, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety. He said he couldn’t comment on the national data.
“Currently, our state has a 93 percent compliance rate for seat belts, which ranks very high,” Bright said. “Vehicles that are being produced have side-impact airbags, which we believe has definitely helped in the reduction of the fatality rate.”
Iowa was one of 11 states that participated in the “I-80 Challenge” in which extra traffic patrols were deployed along the 2,900 miles of Interstate 80 from New Jersey to California Interstate during the last week in July.
The idea was to draw attention to traffic safety through a media blitz and the increased use of patrols. And it was an idea that came out of Iowa’s Department of Public Safety.
With the exception of the I-80 effort, however, traffic safety hasn’t been a hot topic around Iowa Statehouse. Here, transportation efforts have focused more on how to pay for crumbling infrastructure, automated cameras and the future of passenger rail in the state.
That would put Iowa on a similar footing as other states in regard to new traffic safety efforts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures' February 2013 “Traffic Safety Trends” report.
According to the conference, lawmakers in roughly half of the country’s statehouses introduced legislation to strengthen safety belt laws in 2012, and 44 of the 50 states had introduced legislation related to drunken driving. Iowa, and every other state, adopted distracted driving legislation to address texting while driving since 2000.
“We did have the graduated drivers’ license, which essentially made it so you had to have a learner’s permit for a year,” said state Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “I have a 16-year-old daughter, and it’s better that she has a year of experience with the permit in all types of weather — fog, slippery conditions — because we have four seasons in Iowa.”
Traffic data is frequently cited, however, in the ongoing push from some communities to expand the use of automated red light and speed cameras.
The state Department of Public Safety does not use speed cameras and officially takes no position on their use.
“I have not seen any evidence that speed cameras decrease fatalities. What I have seen is when motorists are aware of the location of the speed cameras, they slow down, and as soon as they get by them, they speed up,” Bright said. “The Department of Public Safety will not advocate for or against the restrictions being proposed by the Iowa Department of Transportation.”
Bright was referring to rules IDOT proposed that would give the state more oversight when communities place cameras on state roads. Police officials from several municipalities, including Davenport, Sioux City and Cedar Rapids, oppose the new rules.
“I can’t say definitively that the cameras cause our fatalities to drop, because we have too few fatalities, fortunately, to say,” said Sioux City Police Capt. Mel Williams. “What I can tell you is the research is clear that severity and fatalities go up exponentially when high speeds are involved.”
Williams pointed to a five-year study of Sioux City-area fatal crashes conducted between 2006 and 2010. Of 28 fatal accidents during the period, eight were on the interstate and 20 were not. The average number of deaths per accident in the interstate accidents was 1.6, and the average for those off the interstate was 1.05.
"That’s because of the speeds involved," he said.
Although efforts to ban cameras outright have so far failed in the Legislature, the proposed IDOT rules seem to be moving ahead.
“Where they could make a stronger argument for the traffic cameras is if they could provide us with some more figures,” Byrnes said. “Is it truly making that road safer, or is it about collecting fines?”