Traffic death rate highest in years

"With the dangerous New Year's Eve driving period looming Sunday night, island residents should keep in mind that this has already been a year of fatalities on the roads.Four people died on South Whidbey roads during the past year, victims of the worst spate of fatal traffic accidents the area has experienced in decades.The deaths came during a year when Washington's roads were at their safest in more than 37 years. As of Tuesday, 595 people had died in Washington traffic accidents in 2000, far fewer than the 633 who died in accidents in 1963. Jack Sareault, a media relations officer with the Washington State Patrol, said the low death figure comes as Washington drivers drove the most miles they ever have.People drove more than 40 billion miles this year in Washington state, Sareault said this week.Unfortunately, South Whidbey drivers did not share the statewide trend toward traffic safety. On Jan. 10, Joan Roberts, 75, of Oak Harbor died in a two-car collision at the intersection of Bayview Road and Highway 525. Clinton's Glen Stewart, 84, died in another two-car crash at the Fish Road-Highway 525 intersection on April 22. On June 19, Anna Wright, 77, an Oregon resident, died in a wreck at the intersection of Millman and Double Bluff roads. The next day, Jesse Travis, 18, a 2000 South Whidbey High School graduate, died in a two-car accident on Coles Road.These four fatalities comprise the majority of the six total traffic deaths in Island County in 2000. Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said the traffic death rate on the Southend was high. His deputies responded to 968 traffic accidents countywide this year, the majority of those handled by law enforcement in Island County.It has been a heavier year than usual, Hawley said of the Southend traffic deaths.Compared to neighboring counties, Island County's traffic death rate this past year is not off the charts. According to Washington State Patrol figures, Snohomish County fared far worse, with 39 people dying in traffic accidents. Figured into the county's population of 583,300 people, that works out to one traffic death for every 14,956 people. The rate was lower in Skagit County, where 14 traffic deaths gave the county a rate of one for every 7,185 people. Island County was in the middle, with a traffic death rate of one in 12,216.Getting to the reasons behind these traffic deaths and the traffic accidents is much more difficult than compiling the raw numbers. The causes are, in large part, a matter of opinion. Officials from the sheriff's office and Fire Protection District 3 do agree that age plays a factor in Island County's large number of accidents: The majority of all Island County accidents this year were caused by either teenage or elderly drivers.Paul Busch, assistant chief for FD3, said he and the district's volunteers have seen more accidents involving high school students this year than in recent memory.We've by far had the most accidents in years, and it's mostly high school students, he said.That, says Island County Sheriff's Sgt. Rick Norrie, is undoubtedly a product of inexperience. The situation could change starting in 2001, when a new, graduated license program starts in the state. That program will restrict licenses for new drivers and, in theory, will teach teen drivers better driving habits.It will be interesting to see how that law pans out, Norrie said.Norrie also said the emotional behavior of drivers may have been a contributing factor in many local accidents. Stress, anger and road rage undoubtedly caused many drivers to lose patience, Norrie said, as well as control of their cars.We've had a lot of ugly situations happen on South Whidbey this year, he said.Norrie said increased public education, community law enforcement meetings, and increased traffic law enforcement in 2001 will be key to reducing both traffic deaths and accidents. The last thing he wants to see is more tragedy in the final two days of the year 2000. "

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