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RI Traffic Deaths Spike As National Numbers Decline

Friday, August 12, 2011

 

While the majority of the country saw traffic fatality numbers decrease from 2008 to 2009, Rhode Island was one of only four states that a saw a greater-than-five-percent increase in its fatalities over that time span, according to the most recent data from the Highway National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The Ocean State saw a 28 percent climb in the number of traffic-related deaths in 2009 from 65 to 83, an increase second only to North Dakota, which saw its numbers grow by 35 percent. To compare with the rest of New England, Vermont (1 percent) and Maine (3 percent) were the only other states to see increases in fatalities while Connecticut (-26 percent), New Hampshire (-20 percent) and Massachusetts (-8 percent) all had significant decreases.

Overall, Rhode Island strays significantly from the national trend, which saw a 10 percent decrease in traffic deaths from 2008 to 2009. In total, only eight states saw an increase. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the overall decrease was a positive sign, but more work needs to be done.

“Today’s numbers reflect the tangible benefits of record seat belt use and strong anti-drunk driving enforcement campaigns,” Strickland said when the numbers were released in a report late last year. “But we are still losing more than 30,000 lives a year on our highways, and about a third of these involve drunk driving. We will continue to work with our state partners to strictly enforce both seat belt use and anti-drunk driving laws across this nation, every day and every night.”

Advocate: RI Lax On Motor Vehicle Laws

But it is a weak interpretation of motor vehicle laws that makes Rhode Island roads unsafe compared to other parts of New England and the rest of the country, according one safe-driving advocate.

Robin Foote, whose son Colin was killed in a car accident in May of 2010, said the state does an especially poor job of punishing repeat traffic offenders.

“In my opinion the greatest reason our roads are so dangerous is that our motor vehicle laws, compared to most states - even our neighboring states are very lax and do not provide the necessary deterrents,” Foote wrote in an e-mail to GoLocalProv. “RI also did not, until very recently, take the necessary steps to catch dangerous habitual offenders. So many of these repeat, reckless drivers who display little if any regard for the laws or safety of the public, have been able to avoid prosecution by paying traffic citations by mail. It was only because of the horrendous circumstances of the killing of our son Colin, and the persistent, vigilant action of my wife and I to press state prosecutors for Laura Reale to be deemed a habitual offender”

Foote said legislation sponsored by State Rep. Donna Walsh and Senator Jamie Doyle was passed in the last General Assembly session that will require drivers who receive a third traffic citation in a 12 month period to appear before a Judge or Traffic Tribunal Magistrate.

Foote: RI Has No Vehicular Manslaughter Law

Another factor, according to Foote, is that because there is no "Vehicular Manslaughter" law in the state, the maximum prison sentence for killing another person convicted of "Driving so as to Endanger, Death Resulting" is only ten years. He believes the penalty should be increased.

“Someone can be convicted of financial fraud, kill nobody and be sentenced to 20 years in prison,” Foote said. “There's something terribly wrong with this. Even worse, if someone is convicted of taking a life by reckless operation of a motor vehicle, they are more likely to be sentenced to less than 5 years and qualify for up to 1/3 off of this sentence for ‘good behavior’. Clearly, this category of killer should not benefit from a ‘good behavior’ benefit - they've taken the life of another human being - that's a life sentence ... not only for the victim but the family and friends of the victim."

National Trends

Still, there is some silver lining in the numbers offered in the NHTSA report, both nationally and in Rhode Island. The report lists several key national statistics which suggest the nation is taking a step in the right direction when it comes to addressing traffic fatalities.

• Fatal crashes decreased by 9.9 percent from 2008 to 2009, and the fatality rate dropped to 1.13 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel in 2009.
• The injury rate per 100 million vehicle miles of travel decreased by 6.3 percent from 2008 to 2009.
• The occupant fatality rate (including motorcyclists) per 100,000 population, which declined by 22.7 percent from 1975 to 1992, decreased by 26.8 percent from 1992 to 2009.
• The occupant injury rate (including motorcyclists) per 100,000 population, which declined by 13.6 percent from 1988 to 1992, decreased by 40.0 percent from 1992 to 2009.
• The nonoccupant fatality rate per 100,000 population has declined by 60.2 percent from 1975 to 2009

Despite the large increase from 2008 to 2009 in Rhode Island, the state has also seen a large drop in the number of traffic-related deaths since 1975. The 25 percent decrease over that time span is actually one point higher than the national average.

New Seat Belt Law May Help State

In addition, legislation signed into law by the Governor last month will make seat belt violations a primary offense in the state. Prior to enactment of the legislation, which was sponsored by State Rep. Anastasia Williams (pictured right) and Senator John Tassoni, state law classified failure to wear seatbelts as a secondary offense, and officers could cite seatbelt violations only if a primary offense had occurred – such as running a red light or driving above the speed limit.

The result was that Rhode Island had one of the lowest rates of seat belt use in the country and in 19 of the traffic fatalities in 2008, the victims were not wearing a seat belt. The bill’s sponsors say that since Connecticut changed its law from a secondary to primary offense, the state has one of the highest seat belt use rates in the nation.

Williams said the law will make more people wear seat belts.

“The number of deaths caused by the neglect to wear a seat belt could be drastically reduced if Rhode Islanders buckle up, “she said. “Making this law a primary offense will get more people to wear their seat belts.”

Technology Is The Key

Foote said the state can take its efforts one step further by installing red light cameras at well-known dangerous intersections throughout Rhode Island. He said a number of towns are considering plans to install the cameras.

“Intersection accidents account for the highest amount of traffic fatalities in RI and throughout the nation - nearly 25 percent,” he said. “It is for this reason that our organization, ColinsLaw.Org has endorsed the concept and are advocating for the installation of this technology that has proven time and again to save lives.”

He said the cameras are actually cost-effective and will save lives moving forward.

“In these extraordinarily difficult economic times, it is rare to have such a wonderful life saving technology offered at no cost by companies like American Traffic Solutions to our towns and cities help keep our families and loved ones safe,” Foote said.


 

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