Monday, May 12, 2003

Booze, no belts drive road deaths



By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Someone died on the Tristate's roadways an average of every other day last year. In Hamilton County, which set a record for traffic fatalities, someone died every 4.8 days.

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While the total deaths in Greater Cincinnati were about the same as the year before, 2002 marked the second year that the area has been near or at an all-time fatality record, according to an Enquirer analysis of preliminary state and federal traffic data.

The local toll mirrors a national trend of increased highway deaths, which hit a 12-year high in 2002 with 42,850 fatalities.

Experts are scratching their heads for causes, but say potential reasons for the greater carnage include:

• Lack of use of seat belts.

• Drunken driving.

• More motorcycles on the roads - with fewer drivers using helmets.

National transportation and law enforcement officials today plan to unveil a seat belt awareness campaign aimed at younger drivers. The campaign, which has the support of the federal transportation secretary, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the national president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, will also include a law enforcement crackdown on seat belt use.

"For most age groups, traffic crashes continue to be the leading cause of death, and it does get frustrating, because there are things that kill a lot fewer people that get a whole lot more attention," National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Rae Tyson said. "We're killing the equivalent of a plane crash every day, and yet it doesn't attract that much attention."

Tyson said that while the rate of fatal crashes per 100 million miles traveled stayed steady at 1.51, the continued high number of deaths require more enforcement of traffic safety laws.

The year 2002 was by far the deadliest on Hamilton County's roads since 1994, when county-by-county record keeping began. Seventy-six people died in crashes. That's a 38 percent increase since 2001, which saw 55 deaths in the Tristate's most populous county.

So far this year, the pace of deaths hasn't slowed, said Hamilton County Sheriff Capt. Walter Hendrick, whose department investigated 16 of the 2002 accidents, which killed 21 people

"Unfortunately, most people believe since auto crashes are not intended actions, the results are less serious," Hendrick said. "I am a true believer that a person is just as dead if they are killed in an auto crash as they are if they are killed by a gun."

"If 76 people were killed by a gun, people would be very upset. However, those same 76 people killed by auto crashes do not appear to make people realize operating a vehicle is a serious issue."

In the eight-county Tristate area, 188 people died in 2002, compared with 189 in 2001. The next nearest year was 1997, when 177 died in Hamilton, Clermont, Butler, and Warren counties in Ohio; Boone, Campbell, and Kenton counties in Kentucky; and Dearborn County in Indiana.

Ohio and Kentucky saw their total deaths rise, with Kentucky's total up 8.8 percent to 917 in 2002, up from 843 in 2001.

People don't think about highway deaths "unless it happens to them, their family or friends," said Kentucky State Police Sgt. Wade Farley of the Dry Ridge post. "We do all we can to encourage people to drive safely, wear their seat belts and to not drive under the influence, but it's the public ... making these statistics. They've got to be the ones making the right decisions, too."

In Ohio, the total was 1,417, the highest number of deaths since 1998. That translated into about 3.5 fatal crashes a day and a person killed ever 6.2 hours.

"This is not just a law enforcement and traffic issue, this is a public health issue," said Ohio State Highway Patrol superintendent Col. Paul McClellan. "Deaths would decrease if more people started using their seat belts. Nationally, 59 percent of those who died in 2002 did not buckle up.

In Kentucky, county data on seat belt usage were not available, but statewide 53.3 percent of the fatalities were not wearing seat belts.

Ohio data on seat belt usage during crashes were not yet available. But McClellan says that failure to use seat belts is the single largest contributing factor - and the easiest to fix.

"We've got a state usage rate of about 70 percent, and that could obviously get better," McClellan said.

Driving under the influence also remains a major problem. In Ohio, alcohol-impaired drivers were involved in 26.8 percent of all fatalities. Alcohol was involved in 42 percent of fatalities nationally, a rate that has been rising steadily since 1999. In Kentucky, 156 deaths, or 17 percent, were the results of someone operating a vehicle while over the legal blood alcohol limit.

Finally, the national safety agency says that deaths in motorcycle crashes increased for the fifth year in a row. A total of 3,276 riders were killed in crashes last year, up 3 percent from 2001.

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com




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