AUSTIN (KXAN) — In 2021, 116 people died in traffic crashes on Austin roadways, up from 92 deaths in 2020 and 88 in 2019. There were 518 people left with serious injuries due to Austin crashes in 2021, which was higher than the 418 hurt in 2020 but lower than 551 serious injuries reported in 2019.

While Austin traffic isn’t quite back at pre-pandemic levels, the magnitude of traffic fatalities is increasing — a trend reported across the country since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The state of Texas led with the highest number of estimated traffic fatalities in 2021, with 3,365 deaths recorded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. From a year-over-year percent change between 2020 and 2021, Texas ranked sixth for highest increase in fatalities, jumping 22.3%.

When it comes to vehicle crashes, the Austin Transportation Department has identified four key contributors to crashes and, ultimately, fatalities: speed, distracted driving, failure to yield and impairment. Lewis Leff, transportation safety officer for ATD, said the initial decrease in congestion at the onset of the pandemic led to an increase in reckless behavior, which has continued even as traffic volumes have increased.

“You’ve got a lot of space on the roadways, and some people are choosing to take advantage of that space by speeding and driving a little bit more recklessly than they have in the past,” he said.

But a larger concern linked to the pandemic is the toll it’s taken on some people’s mental health and behaviors, in turn impairing their driving, Leff said.

“Public health research is showing that the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, on substance abuse on various other areas in our community and our society is playing out in people’s homes and in people’s everyday lives,” he said. “And that’s playing out on our roadways, too.”

In Austin, thruways such as Interstate 35 and MoPac Expressway are where a significant portion of serious injuries and fatalities occur. However, ATD has also identified a high-injury roadway network where 70% of all serious injuries or fatal crashes occurred between 2013 and 2017.

Currently, 13 of those roadway sections are being targeted with safety improvements to help mitigate crashes. These include the installation of protected turn signals, flashing yellow arrows and plastic road delineators, which can help guide and separate pedestrian and vehicle traffic through intersections.

So far, Leff said the results are promising.

A December 2021 Vision Zero report found that, as pedestrian traffic fatalities were increasing nationally, leading pedestrian intervals installed in December 2019 led to an 18% reduction in crashes at downtown locations. Leading pedestrian intervals involve changes to traffic signal timing that give pedestrians a “head-start” to make their way to a crosswalk before vehicles are given a green left-turn signal.

Between 2015 and 2019, there were 130 crashes correlated to left-turns in Austin, per a January 2022 Vision Zero report. Over the past two years, three kinds of countermeasures have been installed:

  • Protected-only phasing: Left turners have dedicated turning time with no conflicting vehicle or pedestrian activity permitted; this is protected turning time signified by a green left arrow
  • Flashing yellow areas: Left turners are allowed to turn so long as there are adequate gaps in traffic or no pedestrians in the crosswalk
  • Prominent signage or signal head installations: Used to “clearly communicate driver expectations and lane assignments,” per ATD

At the 18 intersections that have been treated with signalization countermeasures, there’s been a 64% decline in opposite direction-left turn injury crashes, per ATD.

Overall, there’s been a 17% decrease in fatal or serious injury crashes at treated intersections in ATD’s high-injury network. With the success and low-cost nature of these measures, Leff said the department is looking to expand these efforts to other roadways throughout Austin.

“Seeing that play out, we know that we can make some engineering decisions that will have an impact on those roadways,” he said.

However, as is the case with the majority of crashes, Leff said it still comes down to individual behavior to make conscious decisions not to speed or drive distractedly. Monitoring speed, maintaining focus and patience as well as turning our phones on “do not disturb” are tools all drivers can take to keep their eyes on the road.

“We need to know that this is a community issue,” he said. “It’s a public health crisis, and we need everybody to do their part while we’re doing our part, changing the roadways through engineering solutions.”