Increase in speed, impaired driving-related traffic deaths in Dane County ‘alarming,’ officials say

MADISON, Wis. — Officials in Dane County are working to address an “alarming” trend of increased road deaths related to speeding and impaired driving.

Around two-thirds of all road deaths in Dane County in the fourth quarter of 2021 involved both factors, said Cheryl Wittke, the executive director of Safe Communities Madison – Dane County and a co-chair of the county’s Traffic Safety Commission. Overall traffic deaths in the county were up 33%, with 48 reported in Dane County compared to an average of 33 over the past five years.

“When you look at it also in the context of the whole year and really the past couple of years, the increase in traffic fatalities has really been alarming,” she said.

Dane County set a new record for traffic deaths in a year by mid-August 2021. Statewide, roughly 600 people died on Wisconsin roads in 2021, a slight increase from the previous year, according to preliminary data from January.

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Because of the increases, the commission has created multiple committees to study specific issues and hold listening sessions to gather public feedback, specifically tackling risky driving and driving impaired by drugs and alcohol. Those committees will look at demographics and other data such as whether impaired drivers are drinking at home or at a bar before getting behind the wheel and combine that with anecdotal evidence to find solutions.

Part of the solution is engaging people and addressing problematic behavior, Wittke said.

“There’s just a certain amount of it that we have to accept is human behavior, and how do you change the way people drive so that they’re not putting themselves and others at risk, and that has to be a partnership,” she said.

When asked what everyday drivers can do to help make the roads safer, Wittke pointed to an effort in Montana that saw people — primarily women — encourage the risky drivers in their lives to drive safely and wear a seatbelt after data showed those loved ones exercised the most influence in risky drivers’ lives.

That’s something, she said, that anyone can do at any time.

“I think as people who love people who may be engaged in risky behaviors, (we should) just (be) reminding them that we care about them and asking them to take care of themselves and be there for us, and then, of course, all of us just need to wear a seatbelt, slow down and don’t drink and drive,” she said.

Wittke said she’s not sure if the trend is continuing into 2022 yet, but preliminary data from the state’s Department of Transportation shows road deaths are trending higher in Wisconsin than last year. The agency’s daily fatality report issued Monday morning shows 90 deaths on state roads so far this year compared to 76 at this time last year.