Have you noticed — pre-snowstorm — more people taking chances with reckless driving? Drivers passing on the right shoulder or passing in a left-turn lane through an intersection? And then just the sheer speed that drivers are going to make it through before lights turn red? It is like they believe they are the most important drivers on the road.
I am only out driving around a small amount each day, but I consistently see dangerous and reckless driving that both scare and shock me. I would have expected people to be more cautious in a pandemic with most people working from home. But there were 38,680 deaths on U.S. roadways last year, the most since 2007 — even though pandemic precautions had dramatically reduced driving.
I know more than half of the state’s population live in the Seattle metropolitan area and almost 30% live in King County alone, but that doesn’t explain the huge number of deaths. The other thought that occurred to me was that everyone was stressed out from reading all the bad news about COVID-19, and when they hit the roadways, they felt they were in control and could speed on the wide open roadways because everyone else was at home working. The car gave them control of something.
Experts say our cars are safer now than at any time in history because of seatbelt laws and airbags and newer car safety features. Even though several states raised their speed limits, the pandemic gives drivers feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression, resulting in the adoption of dangerous habits. And they are now more inclined to take chances and leave their seatbelt unfastened, or have another beer, or talk on the phone. The rise in motor vehicle deaths fits the pattern of other pandemic trends. Alcohol sales have grown and drug overdoses have increased, as have homicides. The violence is enough of a concern that police officials are discussing it in separate meetings. But reckless and dangerous driving also need to get the attention of police officials.
If this were temporary, statistics for 2021 would decrease. Annual fatalities have fallen from 55,000 in 1970 to 36,096 in 2019. But they rose by 7.2% in 2020, followed by an 18% increase in the first six months of this year, despite total miles driven having dropped by 13%.
Fatalities are up in 41 states, and the death rate among poorer communities was higher, which can apply to most of South King County. Reckless driving should be a concern for everyone and our officials should look at lowering some speed limits on state highways. Virginia raised its speed limit from 80 mph to 85 mph. That makes everyone more vulnerable to reckless driving. In California, fatalities increased 5% last year, and highway patrol officers issued 28,500 tickets for speeds over 100 mph — almost double the 2019 total. They arrested 232 people for reckless driving (150% increase) and they are on pace to exceed that this year.
One of the signs of reckless driving is the number of accidents that involve only one vehicle. Those should be fined at a higher rate than others. Street racing, or performing dangerous stunts, should be fined much higher. In Maine, motorists convicted of criminal negligence that results in a driving-related death have their license suspended for a year.
Next time you are out, count the number of reckless decisions you see drivers make. I think you will be surprised at the number. However, I am fearful that too many drivers believe they are the most important ones on the road and simple civility has been lost. Much like not wearing masks, or not getting vaccinated, we have come to expect people to be selfish and not think of the other person first, although that may be expecting too much. Their car isn’t a toy and, used incorrectly, it can kill people. Nationwide, more than two dozen traffic safety bills proposed in 2020 did not pass.
We have a legislative session coming up in January 2022. Now is the time to crack down on careless driving while everyone is still following the pandemic rules.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.