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Traffic Fatalities In The Northwest Rising At Fastest Rate In Country

Washington State Patrol
Impaired driving was suspected in this serious collision on May 18 along SR97 in north central Washington.

Traffic accident fatalities are rising at a faster rate in Northwest states than anywhere else in the country according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drug-impaired drivers and distracted drivers appear to be factors involved in the increase.

The data, presented at a meeting called by the Governor's Office Wednesday in Olympia, showed deadly crashes were on a downward slide until reversing sharply upward in the last couple years. In 2015, Oregon experienced a 25 percent increase in traffic fatalities versus the year before. Washington state jumped 23 percent and Idaho crash deaths went up 16 percent.

Washington Traffic Safety Commission Director Darrin Grondel said a rise in fatalities involving drugged drivers has unfortunately eclipsed the steady decline in drunk driving collisions involving alcohol alone.

"A lot of people get wrapped around that being marijuana. I want to make sure that everybody knows, it's about drugged driving,” Grondel said. “It's all. It's (also) prescription drugs as well as illicit drugs."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee met with Grondel, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste and other officials Wednesday to discuss possible responses. These include asking the Washington Legislature for a third time to forbid hand-held use of a smartphone for any reason behind the wheel -- as Oregon has already done. Such legislation may also resurface in Idaho next session.

Grondel also floated the idea of allowing roadside sobriety checkpoints, which are currently not legal in any Northwest state.

Batiste told the governor and fellow state agency directors that enforcement alone cannot solve the problem, especially given a large number of trooper vacancies. Batiste said the state patrol's front line strength is down by about 121 troopers due to retirements and troopers leaving for higher-paying agencies.

On the issue of drugged-driving, several speakers told the governor and his staff that better education of citizens and young people would be helpful.

"There's no recognition that marijuana is an impairment," said Anne Larson, Target Zero Manager at the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

"We've got a lot of education to do," agreed Shelley Snow, the transportation safety spokesperson at Oregon's Department of Transportation, in a separate interview with public radio.

The director of Washington's Department of Licensing said her agency is preparing a legislative package that focuses on cutting the disproportionately high crash rate of young drivers, ages 16-25. The recommendations include expanding the age range for which driving school is a prerequisite to get a driver license. Currently, 16-17 year olds must take driver's education to get a license. Licensing Director Pat Kohler proposed to expand the training and supervised behind-the-wheel practice requirement to the 16-20 age range.

The agency managers working to make driving safer acknowledge some contributing factors to the rise in traffic fatalities are outside their control. For one, declining unemployment has put more commuters on the roads.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.