Traffic Injury, Fatality Reaches Record Highs in Austin: City Responds

In May KUT analyzed the factors that put Austinites at risk for traffic fatality. Why did 102 people die on Austin roads in 2015, and who were they? Before Austin can reach Vision Zero, we must look at the factors causing crashes. What’s the real cause behind traffic fatalities in Austin? Distracted driving, dark streets, and drinking all to blame.

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Why Were There So Many More Fatal Accidents On Austin’s Roads in 2015?

A number of experts and local officials postulate as to the cause of the increase, but none can be certain why Austin’s traffic deaths increased so much in 2015. Here’s a look, however, at what we do know about this year’s deadly crashes.

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Click to view infographic of type and counts of Austin car crash fatalities between Jan. 1, 2015 to Sept. 15, 2015, and as compared to 2014.

  • Day of Week
    • Echoing Austin Police Department (APD) analyses, we found there’s no single most dangerous day on Austin roads. With available information, 16 of Austin’s traffic fatalities occurred on a Saturday, but then again, 15 occurred on a Wednesday.
  • Time of Day
    • Fifty percent of Austin’s traffic fatalities occurred between 8pm and 4am, 24% occurred between noon and 8pm, and 20% occurred between 4am and 12pm (for some crashes data was unavailable).
  • Age of Victim
    • The average age of traffic fatality victims was 36, and the most often age was 26 (which occurred 5 times).
  • Involvement of Drugs or Alcohol
    • According to APD traffic fatality police reports, impairment from drugs or alcohol was a factor in 60 percent of the fatal crashes.
    • In 2014, 37 percent of fatal crashes in Travis County involved alcohol or other substances.
    • In response to the increased traffic fatality rate in early 2015, APD initiated extended No-Refusal policies and DWI initiatives during holiday weekends to combat a known problem.
    • In August, Police Chief Art Acevedo added a third shift to the DWI unit. Over the 10-day holiday break beginning Dec. 18, Austin police made 127 arrests for DWI as part of a No-Refusal Initiative.

What Happens when Austin Travels for its Night Out

Austin earned the title “#1 Booziest City” from Match.com in Dec. when the dating site analyzed it’s database to find out where people most often report a habit of “regularly” drinking. You might be thinking, that’s just our population of singles ready to mingle, not all of Austin. Until you rest on this fact: in March RealtyTrac reported that Austin’s Zip Code 78701 has more bars per capita than any other zip code in the US way ahead of New Orleans’ 70130. With 88 bars, the area has 1 bar for every 67 people living in the zip code – people are definitely drinking, but not necessarily where they live.

Despite these efforts, the death toll on Austin roads continued to rise throughout 2015, leaving Acevedo and other city officials confounded as to how to stop these deaths.

High Speed, High Stakes, I-35 v. I-30 Highways

In the Austin area, more than 220,000 vehicles travel on I-35 on a daily basis. This often congested stretch of highway was host to 15 of Austin’s traffic deaths in 2015.

What would make more big trucks likely to bypass Austin and use the newly constructed SH 130? A study conducted by Texas A&M’s Transportation Policy Research Center found that only 14 percent of vehicles traveling on I-35 do not stop, and that only 1 percent of those are trucks. Transportation planners in Austin must look for additional ways to reduce congestion on busy, high speed roads. 15 of Austin’s accident fatalities occurred on I-35 alone.

A Dangerous Trail: Pedestrians Make Up One Third of Crash Victims

One number that stands out is the pedestrian deaths on Austin roads. Sometimes even looking twice before you cross the road won’t help. Of the 102 fatal crashes, 30 involved pedestrians and more than 11 of those were hit and runs where a driver involved in the accident failed to stop and render aid.

In November, 43-year-old Domingo Martinez, was struck by an unknown white vehicle that failed to stop and render aid when he was crossing E. Riverside Dr. east of the crosswalk. This case is still being investigated by authorities who say that 94 percent of these pedestrians were crossing the street illegally (as of September), prompting transportation and city planning advocates to call for more walk-able streets.

Pagan, the 29-year-old Fort Hood sergeant, was also traveling near E. Riverside Dr. and hit by an unknown vehicle 6 months before Martinez. According to reports, a couple on their way home from a wedding saw him, pulled over, and called 911.

Riverside is a road often highlighted by the transportation safety advocates Bike Austin. The organization has staged rides to publicly highlight the dangers on that stretch of road. Experts at Bike Austin cite studies which show that bike lanes contribute to the safety of bikes and pedestrians.

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Sidewalk on Guadalupe St.

Beyond just pedestrians, over half of all fatal crashes in 2015 involved someone that wasn’t in a car. In each of these cases, it was the pedestrian, motorcyclist or cyclist who was killed.

Last November, Austin launched the Vision Zero Task Force, which, like the name suggests, aims to bring Austin’s traffic fatality and injury count to zero. Vision Zero, a data-driven approach to reducing traffic fatalities through the design and engineering of Austin’s most dangerous roads. The city of Austin has adopted the Task Force as part of a comprehensive plan to educate road users, reduce dangerous driving behavior, and the engineering of roads. Officials hope that data-driven proposals may move the city to a safer record.

While the city and task force wrestle through the official recommendations, Austin drivers can begin fighting traffic accidents immediately by choosing not to drink and drive and driving cautiously for potentially dangerous conditions such as darkness and weather.