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Iowa misses goal of improving traffic safety

Excessive speeding a factor in high fatality count

A wrecked Iowa State Patrol car sits on display during a June 8 news conference announcing the Iowa Traffic Fatality Reduction Task Force at the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines. (Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES — Iowa law officers and safety officials will not meet their goal of holding traffic deaths below 300 this year.

Even so, Brett Tjepkes, bureau chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, said they are continuing their safety campaign aimed at persuading drivers to slow down, buckle up and operate alcohol- and distraction-free heading into the heavy Thanksgiving holiday travel period.

As of Friday, Iowa’s traffic death count stood at 312, which officials with the state Department of Transportation said outpaced the death toll for that same date in the four previous years. But it was below the 350 count by the same time in 2016 — the last year that highway crashes claimed more than 400 lives total.

“We did not attain our goal of getting below 300, but we are going to continue to strive for that. We feel that we can,” said Tjepkes, a member of the recently formed Iowa Traffic Fatality Task Force that announced the yearly goal last summer.

“We’re constantly working every day to have that number as low as possible because one death is too many,” he noted.

Among the points of emphasis for law enforcement agencies working to make Iowa roads safer has been an effort to curb the uptick in motor vehicle operators driving at excessive speeds on interstate, primary and secondary roads, said Sgt. Alex Dinkla, spokesman for the Iowa State Patrol. The patrol reported issuing 1,497 speeding citations in 2020 — more than double the previous year's 659 total.

State troopers noted a spike in speeding offenses during the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic when traffic volumes took a nose dive and drivers apparently believed there were fewer law enforcement officers monitoring Iowa roadways, Dinkla said. Since then, traffic volumes have returned to normal patterns, he noted, “but we’re still seeing people driving at an alarming rate of speed.”

“The amount of people that we still see and stop doing over 100 mph is still through the roof. We’re not talking about speeds just 100 or slightly above that, we’re talking that our officers on a daily basis are stopping people at 120, 130 mph — and those types of speeds are just uncalled-for and they’re just plain unsafe,” Dinkla said. “Anybody who chooses to drive at those speeds and gets in a crash, it’s only increasing that rate of injury or death.”

Through the first 10 months of 2021, state troopers had issued 976 speeding tickets — an ongoing trend that prompted state Public Safety Commissioner Stephen Bayens to tell members of a legislative budget committee last March that “people are treating the interstates like NASCAR.”

"It’s alarming the speeds that we’re seeing and where they are happening," said Dinkla. "It’s all over Iowa. It’s not in just the cities, it’s in rural environments, it’s on four lanes, it’s on two lanes. It is a wide variety of folks — it’s younger, it’s older. We don’t have an understanding of why this is happening and why people are choosing to drive at these speeds. The variety of excuses go from they had no idea that they were legitimately going that fast, some knew they were going that fast and just had an appointment they needed to get to — it’s all over the board. It’s all over the spectrum of why this is happening, but we need these speeds to stop."

Distracted driving also continues to be a problem, Tjepkes said, noting 945 crashes and four deaths were tied to drivers operating vehicles while distracted last year — data down from 1,233 crashes in 2016 and 14 deaths in 2015 tied to distracted drivers, according to Iowa DOT data.

Law enforcement agencies, safety groups and others worked unsuccessfully to get the Iowa Legislature to adopt a measure that would ban the use of hand-held devices while driving in Iowa last session, with some lawmakers expressing concerns over enforcement and personal freedoms.

Lax seat-belt usage also remains a problem, Dinkla noted, with about 38 percent of the victims killed in vehicle crashes this year not using some form of safety restraint.

"We need people to really understand what they’re doing behind the wheel and to take some personal responsibility for how they’re driving and some of the inappropriate actions that they are choosing to do when they drive," said Dinkla. "Putting this on every person who is out there that’s driving — what are you doing? Are you being a safe driver or are you part of the problem?”

Public safety officials report 669 crashes and 30 deaths in 2020 were tied to drivers who were exceeding the speed limit, while another 51 deaths and 1,383 crashes in Iowa last year were due to alcohol-impaired driving.

That is a concern heading into a Thanksgiving holiday travel season with AAA officials projecting the highest single-year increase in travelers since 2006, bringing vehicle volumes close to pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

Iowa law enforcement agencies are conducting a stepped-up enforcement effort through Nov. 28 in hopes to boosting safety during the holiday period. Last year, 13 deaths occurred between Nov. 15 and Nov. 28.

Despite gas costing over a dollar more per gallon than this time last year, AAA projects 48.3 million Americans plan to travel by car as their preferred mode of travel later this month. Traffic volumes between Wednesday and Nov. 28 are expected to be 8.4 percent higher than a year ago but 3 percent fewer than in 2019.

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