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Veteran researcher talks about why fatal crashes continue to rise in Michigan

Preliminary numbers show a ten-percent increase in fatal crashes
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A crashed truck on I-96 getting ready to be towed from the scene.


Preliminary numbers show fatal crashes increased again in 2021 over 2020, up by about 10 percent, continuing a disturbing trend reflected in national data.

Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report detailing factors contributing to the higher death count, including speeding and a decline in seat belt use.

This week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast features a conversation with Peter Savolainen, a Michigan State University foundation professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, who has conducted extensive research on driver behavior.

Savolainen talks about the most recent Michigan numbers that found that 1,067 people died on Michigan roads this year. As of Dec. 7, compared to a year ago, there are 101 more fatalities and 369 more serious injuries.

While travel was down nationally anywhere from 20 to 30 percent on average over calendar year 2020, Savolainen observes that most crashes were down by similar proportions, except for the most severe. He says there were pronounced increases in the number of fatal traffic crashes.

“We've been trying to understand exactly what's been driving that, and there's been a lot of discussion nationally that speed is playing a role in that to some degree,” says Savolainen.

He also talks about the troubling increase in pedestrian deaths and the possibility that, for a time, more people were walking instead of using public transit because of the pandemic. The Governors Highway Safety Association reports that drivers struck and killed an estimated 6,721 people on foot last year, and “a shocking and unprecedented” 21 percent increase in the pedestrian fatality rate from 2019 to 2020 was the largest-ever annual increase as a result of traffic crashes since the government’s tracking system was established in 1975.

Among other related topics, Savolainen discusses automated enforcement technology. He says data shows conclusively that awareness of the enforcement brings down speeds.

Listen now: