Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

Reckless Driving a National Problem

Yes, Milwaukee has huge problem, but it's part of a worrisome national trend.

By - Feb 15th, 2022 01:59 pm
Car crash on N. Water St. Photo by Michael Horne.

Car crash on N. Water St. File photo by Michael Horne.

Milwaukee is not alone in facing a problem with reckless driving.

Nationally there has been a surge in reckless driving and pedestrian deaths, the New York Times has reported. “Two years into the pandemic, such fatalities are soaring into record territory amid a nationwide flare-up in reckless driving,” the story found.

“Last year, New Mexico recorded 99 pedestrian deaths, up from 81 in 2020 and 83 in 2019 and the most since it began tracking such incidents in the 1990s. But while Sun Belt states have been hit particularly hard, the pedestrian death toll spiked last year in many parts of the country. New Jersey had its highest number of pedestrian fatalities in more than 30 years. Last year was also the deadliest on Utah’s roads since the start of the century, as pedestrian deaths rose 22 percent. Washington State ended 2021 with a 15-year high in traffic fatalities.”

Milwaukee created a City-County Carjacking and Reckless Driving Task Force in response to a surge in both problems, along with an increase in speeding and pedestrian fatalities. The city has proposed using civil suits to target reckless driving, is spending federal ARPA funds on traffic slowing infrastructure and may also use Tax Incremental Financing dollars to rebuild streets as well. Common Council President Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson has offered a reckless driving plan that is a central focus of his campaign for mayor.

Nationally, auto cashes killed more than 6,700 pedestrians in 2020, up about 5% from an estimated 6,412 in 2019, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. But this was in a year when there was much less driving, due to the pandemic. When measured against vehicle miles traveled, the association projected that the pedestrian fatality rate spiked by about 21% in 2020,  the largest ever year-over-year increase.

But in the city of Milwaukee, traffic fatalities rose more than 50% from 2019 to 2020.

While much of the attention in Milwaukee has been on reckless driving, with the Common Council and Milwaukee Police Department rethinking whether or not police should risk a possible accident pursuing these drivers, it seems clear this is part of a general increase in speeding, risky driving and increased fatalities. Crashes killing pedestrians climbed 46% over the last decade, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Part of that may be due to an aging, more vulnerable pedestrian population combined with the ballooning sizes of S.U.V.s and trucks, which have grown heavier with higher front ends, striking people with much greater force.

That said, Milwaukee is plagued by a very specific problem of soaring auto thefts, with the majority committed by minors under the age of 18, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. And two thirds of them involve Kia and Hyundai cars, Urban Milwaukee reported. It takes less than two minutes to break into the cars, the story noted. Many of the stolen cars are then used for joy rides, which lead to reckless driving. “Those stealing and recklessly driving are informally called the ‘Kia Boyz’ by multiple social media accounts,” Jeramey Jannene‘s report noted.

Some have suggested the pandemic-induced decline in traffic in 2020 led to more risky driving. “Reports of drag racing, drivers chasing land-speed records, and more speed-related crashes began setting off alarm bells for police agencies across the country almost immediately after states began their coronavirus lockdowns in mid-March and traffic volumes fell dramatically,” as the Washington Post reported.

An analysis by Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin called reckless driving the “silent epidemic.”

“We speculate that the pandemic and its ripple effects loom large in the context of increases in reckless driving,” their analysis noted. “Froedtert Hospital 2020 data show that hospitalizations stemming from car crashes (not limited to reckless driving incidents) increased 19%.

“Officials theorize that emptier roads during the pandemic have encouraged not only reckless driving but also drivers traveling at higher speeds… a Wisconsin Policy Forum study…  showed that alcohol-related driving fatalities in Wisconsin increased 50% in 2020 compared with 2019. Deaths in crashes where vehicle occupants were not wearing seatbelts rose 24% during the same period. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report reflected the same trends nationwide.”

Dr. David Spiegel, director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, offered a variant of this theory — “salience saturation” — to the Times. “We’re so saturated with fears about the virus and what it’s going to do,” he said. “People feel that they get a pass on other threats.”

Whatever the reasons, this kind of risky behavior has continued into 2021, even after roads and highways were clogged again with traffic. Nationally there was an 18% increase in traffic fatalities during the first half of 2021, the AP reported,  with evidence that levels of speeding and traveling without a seat belt remained higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The headline in another story said it all: “Pandemic set off deadly rise in speeding that hasn’t stopped.”

It certainly hasn’t stopped in Milwaukee.

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One thought on “Back in the News: Reckless Driving a National Problem”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Smart people are buying larger SUVs and pickup trucks because they offer more protection from reckless drivers. I bought my first SUV five years ago. You pay more for gasoline with a large vehicle but you feel a whole lot safer on the roads.

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