Traffic deaths in Iowa hit lowest level since World War II

State officials say Iowa’s road death toll in 2009 is the lowest since 1945, the Des Moines Register reported on January 2. There were 371 recorded traffic fatalities last year, although the number could rise slightly if additional deaths are reported from the end of December. Register reporter Mike Kilen noted several factors that helped reduce the number of fatal accidents: Iowans cut back on miles driven because of the recession, cars and roads are safer, and more people are wearing seat belts. Smart policing was also at work:

“The emphasis has really been placed on the drunken driver, with 20 to 25 percent of fatalities involving drinking,” [Iowa State Patrol Chief Col. Patrick] Hoye said.

The state patrol initiated Safe Saturdays this summer, putting more troopers on the roads on Saturday nights during June, typically the deadliest month.

“The (drunken driving) arrests went way up and there was a dip in the deaths,” he said.

We’ll never know who is walking around alive today because state troopers wisely focused on the most dangerous drivers at the most dangerous times. All who devised and carried out those policies deserve credit.

In November Iowa Republicans announced a “Liberty Agenda” that included this proposal:

Restore the number of State Troopers to the pre-1998 level within the next five years.

Since 1998, the last year in which Republicans controlled state government, the number of State Troopers has dropped from 355 to 288.

During the upcoming legislative session, I will be curious to hear how Republicans make the case for hiring as many state troopers as we had in 1998. I don’t pretend to know what the ideal number of state troopers is for Iowa, but it seems like they decided the 1998 level was needed because Republicans controlled state government at that time. Aren’t Republicans supposed to be for using state resources efficiently and not expanding the size of government for its own sake?

Kilen asked Scott Falb, the driver safety specialist for the Iowa Department of Transportation, about ways to reduce road deaths further. Falb suggested several changes but did not mention increasing the number of state troopers:

Improvements to roadways, such as rumble strips on center lines and shoulders and engineering tweaks, would help lower fatalities even more in the future, Falb said.

Proposed laws to restrict cell phone use and texting while driving, added restrictions on younger drivers and seat belt requirements for anyone in a vehicle under the age of 18 would also help lower the number of deaths, he said.

If the legislature decides to restrict cell phone use while driving, lawmakers should note that hands-free cell phones are no safer for drivers than ordinary cell phones. This New York Times piece on distracted driving explains why.  

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