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Texas Road Deaths Surge In First Five Months Of 2021

Stephanie Tacy for KUT

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More people died on Texas roads in the first five months of the year than during the same period in 2020, according to a database maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation.

The 1,636 people killed in crashes through May represent a 14% increase over the same time period last year.

In the seven-county Austin area, the number of people killed on roads this year is about the same as it was this time last year, according to TxDOT's Crash Records Information System.

In Travis County, for example, 53 people have died in traffic crashes since Jan. 1. That's the same as this point in time in 2020, and two more deaths compared with the same time period in 2019.

Most of the traffic fatalities in Travis County happened in Austin, where police have reported 44 deaths this year — eight more than it did at the same point last year.

At this pace, the city could surpass the number of traffic fatalities it had in 2020, which was already a record year in deaths despite having fewer people on the road because of the pandemic.

Ninety-four people died in crashes last year within the Austin city limits, the highest number since 2015.

Traffic deaths have seen a rise nationwide. New estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that 38,680 people died on U.S. roads last year. That was the most since 2007.

NHTSA said three factors drove the increase in deaths: impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt.

"The number one determinant of a severity of a crash is speed," said Robert Wunderlich, director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute's Center for Transportation Safety. "In other words, a 10% increase in speed actually increases your chance of a fatality by about 50%."

The increase in fatalities has some state officials wondering whether TxDOT's efforts to influence driver behavior through advertising campaigns are working.

"We are not focused on measuring, 'Is the message working?'" Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said at a recent meeting to review TxDOT's annual highway safety plan. "Based on last year, I'd say it's not." (Deaths on Texas roads rose 7.5% in 2020 compared to 2019.)

"We can't have a safety plan that continues to look the same year after year," she added.

Transportation safety experts say driver behavior is one of only several factors affecting how many people are killed on the roads. Other factors include road design, vehicle crashworthiness, law enforcement, weather and the number of people driving.


Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5

Nathan Bernier a KUT reporter and the local host during All Things Considered and Marketplace. He grew up in the small mountain town of Nelson, BC, Canada, and worked at commercial news radio stations in Ottawa, Montreal and Boston before starting at KUT in 2008.