Transportation

Whatcom County, Wash., Struggles to Meet ‘Target Zero’ Goals

The number of traffic-related fatalities nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017, through officials say 2018 appears to be trending down with only 11 fatalities logged on county roadways as of Oct. 31.

by David Rasbach, The Bellingham Herald / November 19, 2018
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(TNS) —  A Washington Traffic Safety Commission radio commercial a few years ago asked residents around the state “What is an acceptable annual number of traffic fatalities in the state of Washington?”

Answers varied from a few dozen to the lower triple digits — everyone agreeing that the fewer traffic fatalities, the better.

Then the commercial asked “What is an acceptable number of traffic fatalities in your family?”

Even if your mother-in-law rides a broomstick or you’re no longer talking to your siblings, that number is going to be a big, fat zero. Nobody wants to lose a loved one in a wreck.

And that’s what’s at the root of the commission’s Target Zero program — creating a big, fat zero for Washington state traffic-related deaths by the year 2030.

“People say you should set an realistic goal,” Doug Dahl, the WTSC’s Target Zero manager for Region 11, told The Bellingham Herald in a September interview. “OK, so maybe practically speaking, zero deaths may not be very achievable. But from a personal perspective, what’s the acceptable number?

“The only acceptable number is zero. That’s what we all have to work toward, because everybody who is killed in a traffic accident is somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s brother or sister, somebody’s mother or father, somebody’s friend, somebody’s coworker or somebody we see at the store.”

By those standards, 2017 was a huge disappointment — not just for the WTSC, the Washington State Department of Transportation, law enforcement and everybody who works tirelessly to keep roads safe in Whatcom County and throughout the state, but for every driver, cyclist and pedestrian on the road.

We all failed, and more importantly, we all failed each other.

According to data on the WSDOT’s Crash Data Portal, Whatcom County had 20 fatal accidents in 2017 that resulted in 23 deaths.

The 23 traffic-related fatalities were nearly double the 12 that occurred a year earlier and the highest total in the database, which goes back to 2007. The 20 fatal crashes were not only a 67 percent increase from the 12 in 2016, it was the second-highest total in the past decade, behind only the 21 crashes that caused 21 deaths in 2008.

It also marked the third straight year Whatcom County has seen increases in both the number of fatal crashes and traffic-related fatalities.

The WTSC, which Dahl said also tracks traffic deaths that may occur months after a crash and law enforcement has wrapped up its reports, actually commemorated 25 fatalities on Whatcom County Roads at its World Day of Remembrance Thursday at Bellingham City Hall.

Any way you look at it, it was way too many.

“We’ve been going up pretty steadily for a number of years now,” Dahl said. “We were pretty flat in 2011, ’12, ’13 and ’14, and then it shot up — statewide and nationally, too. … In 2017 we had a few crashes where there were multiple victims, and last spring, it seemed like an anomaly — there were just a whole bunch of fatal crashes in a row. It kind of surprised us. The rest of the year was normal — I hate saying ‘normal’ when people are dying, so more typical.”

The rest of the Evergreen State saw similar heartache on the roads last year, according to the WSDOT portal.

Fatalities statewide jumped from 544 in 2016 to 562 in 2017 and fatal crashes increased from 513 to 532. The number of crashes was a new high, according to the WSDOT data, while 2007 was actually deadlier with 569 fatalities statewide.

It’s not uncommon for Whatcom County or Washington State to have high traffic fatality rates.

Since 2010, the national rate for fatalities per 100 million miles driven in the U.S. has ranged from a low of 1.08 in 2014 to a high of 1.18 in 2016 (the most recent year statistics have been published) according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration .

During that same period, calculating from the WSDOT fatality stats and the NHTSA’s data resource website for miles driven , Washington State has ranged between a low of 1.31 traffic fatalities per 100,000 miles driven in 2012 and 2013 to a high of 1.47 in 2016.

Whatcom County, meanwhile, saw a low of 1.11 in 2011 and a high of 2.05 in 2013.

Drivers logged 859,439,900 miles in Whatcom County 2016, according to the NHTSA. Using that number to estimate the county’s fatality rate with 23 fatalities in 2017, Whatcom would have had an astounding 2.68 fatalities per 100 million miles driven — well over twice the United States Department of Transportation’s national estimate of 1.16 per 100 million miles driven.

Before you decide to hole up, work from home and resort to only online shopping, there is good news — 2018 is on track to be much safer in Whatcom County. Through Oct. 31, WSDOT logged 11 fatal accidents and 11 fatalities on Whatcom County roadways.

While that’s a huge improvement, any one of those 11 families that lost a loved one will tell you it’s still 11 too many.

So how do we go about knocking the numbers down and approach the target of zero — as 2030 is only 12 years away?

Over the next five days, The Bellingham Herald will dive into the data, taking a look at the where, who, when and why fatal accidents are occurring in Whatcom County and then examine how we all could play a role in reducing that number and approaching the target of zero.

Every one of us has been cut off, stuck at a light, hung out to dry on a zipper merge or worse, and we’ve asked that question. So reporter Kenny Ocker sought out a panel of local law enforcement officials and put it to them, with no time to prepare.

©2018 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.