AUSTIN (KXAN) — This weekend marks an unwelcomed and tragic milestone for Texas motorists as the state reaches 21 years of daily traffic fatalities on Nov. 7.
For more than two decades, Texas transportation officials have worked on policy initiatives and grassroots campaigns aimed at addressing continued traffic fatalities. Currently, Texas Department of Transportation officials estimate an average of 10 people die each day in vehicle-related accidents.
In 2020, 3,896 people died on Texas roadways as a result of traffic-related incidents. That figure translates to a 7.54% jump in traffic fatalities when compared to 2019 levels, even with the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on 2020 traffic levels.
Brad Wheelis, public information officer for TxDOT, said while traffic volumes in the Austin area we’re halved in 2020, that didn’t translate to lower fatalities. In fact, he said lower traffic levels and more open roads correlated to higher speeds — a major factor, he said, in 2020’s traffic fatalities.
“Last year, the top two contributing factors in fatal crashes were speeding and driving under the influence. Those are two factors that we can do something about,” he said. “We cannot engineer our way out have this problem. We cannot engineer our way to zero deaths.”
According to TxDOT data, a combined 63,434 lives have been lost in Texas roadway accidents between 2003 and 2020. Since 2000 — the year the state began its daily fatalities streak — that number translates to more than 70,000, officials said.
TxDOT developed the #EndTheStreakTX social media campaign as a means of providing drivers and their loved ones safety tips on how to drive distraction-free and assist in minimizing those risks.
The efforts behind #EndTheStreakTX have also been codified in other transportation-related initiatives. In 2019, the Texas Transportation Commission adopted the goal of achieving zero deaths on Texas roadways by 2050, as well as cutting the number of fatal crashes in half by 2035.
“Last year, 20 Texas counties actually had zero deaths on their roadways – that tells me we can end the streak of daily deaths in Texas,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said in a release.
In Austin, transportation officials said current deadly crash volumes are on the rise throughout the city, in correlation with national trends. Data from the National Safety Council estimates traffic fatalities are up 16% from 2020 and 17% from 2019.
The city’s Vision Zero program collects data on traffic fatalities and severe injuries, noting changes over recent years. As of Sept. 30, there were a reported 89 fatalities in Austin thus far in 2021, up from 67 fatalities at that same point in 2020. Overall, there were a total of 9,544 crashes for the year through the end of September, up from 9,036 in 2020.
The vast majority of traffic fatalities occur among motorists, followed by pedestrian deaths. In the year to date, there have been 47 motorist-related fatalities and 24 pedestrian-related deaths. Compared to 2020, there were 48 motorist deaths last year and 34 pedestrian fatalities.
Wheelis said initiatives like #EndTheStreakTX are still imperative in educating the public on what’s at stake with reckless driving behaviors. But ultimately, he said messaging can only go so far in enacting change. It comes down to the choices of individual drivers in foregoing distracted driving, speeding or driving under the influence.
“Folks are receiving the message, but we’re not seeing that being put into play,” he said. “So we’re still seeing folks speeding, we’re still seeing folks drinking and driving, we’re seeing distracted driving crashes. These fatalities, a large number of them, more than 90% are preventable, if people would just change their behavior behind the wheel.”