‘Have to get back to basics:’ WisDOT says speeding, risky driving leading to rise in traffic deaths

MADISON, Wis. — Traffic fatalities in Wisconsin are already outpacing last year’s numbers, just one quarter into 2022.

So far this year, 102 people have been killed in 91 crashes, according to the latest data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. At the same point last year, WisDOT had recorded 82 deaths in 79 crashes.

David Pabst, Director of Transportation Safety at WisDOT, said that while the department typically uses five-year averages to analyze increases in traffic fatalities, 2022’s increase in deadly accidents is concerning. Speeding and risky driving are largely to blame.

“It’s just not a little bit of speeding; it’s a lot,” Pabst said. “People are going well over 100 mph often, and anytime you crash, even over 70 mph, the likelihood of dying increases exponentially.”

When the world came to a halt in 2020 due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic on once-busy roadways dropped dramatically. At the same time, traffic fatalities increased and severe injuries decreased, both of which are signs that drivers were driving faster on the unusually open roads, according to Pabst.

Even with modern safety advancements in consumer vehicles, Pabst said it’s rare for a driver to survive a crash when speeds reach extreme highs. High speeds mixed with other risky behavior — declining rates of seatbelt use (rates have dropped from 90% to 88% in the past few years, according to Pabst), distracted driving and impaired driving — can often lead to deadly results.

“Slow down. My gosh, what is the rush? The speed limits are designed to protect you. Obey them. Wear your seatbelt. Put your phone down. Don’t drive impaired – whether it’s drugs or alcohol, just plan ahead and get a safe ride home,” Pabst said. “We have to get back to basics and people have to start taking ownership of this.”

Enforcement, education and improved safety measures across the board are all keys to reducing traffic deaths, but no single one will solve the problem.

During a Thursday morning press conference alongside other City of Madison officials, Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes said officers with his department are cracking down on speeding within the city.

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That’s especially true on East Washington Avenue, a highly traveled corridor that’s notorious for speeding — and more recently — a string of deadly crashes. Over the past year, Barnes and his department increased enforcement on E. Washington Ave. alone by 135%.

Even with strong enforcement efforts at various levels throughout the state, Pabst said risky driving is a cultural problem that’ll require people to step up in their personal lives.

“Everyone knows driving drunk or impaired through drugs and alcohol is wrong. People don’t accept it; it’s socially unacceptable. But everybody speeds,” Pabst said. “We just don’t think of it as a dangerous behavior even though it really is.”