By Andrew Martin News & Citizen/VTDigger
The number of fatal car crashes on Vermont’s roads has risen substantially this year.
“We are up significantly from last year, more than double,” said Mandy White, spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Though theoretically fewer drivers are on the road because of the pandemic, the number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes this year has already surpassed last year’s total. Through Sept. 23, 53 people had died in 49 crashes. For comparison, 47 people died in crashes in all of 2019. By mid-September of last year, there had been only 21 fatalities in 20 crashes, White said.
The state tracks the “typical” crash, in which one vehicle hits another, or an object, and other crashes that take place on public highways. That could include ATVs and snowmobiles, pedestrians or bicyclists. Lamoille County this year has had both. A woman died after being hit by a car while walking in Morristown this summer, and a man died after an ATV accident in September. That’s the second fatal ATV crash this year, White said, and the fourth pedestrian death.
Motorcycle crashes also seem to be on the rise, and one cyclist, a young girl in Jericho, was killed after she was hit by a car in August.
So just what is driving these fatalities? About half of those who died this year weren’t wearing seat belts, White said, though the numbers are still being compiled.
Speeding is also typical in many fatal crashes, and about 40% of all fatal crashes involve an impaired driver.
“That’s trending normal from previous years,” White said.
The state tracks instances of distracted drivers, too, but that can be hard to prove, so the numbers aren’t as accurate. However, police say it is a significant factor.
“Distracted driving is a component in almost all our accidents,” said Chris Watson, a staff sergeant with the Lamoille County. Typically, those distractions come from cellphones or other in-car technology.
“A lot of ours aren’t because of speed,” Morristown desk officer Andrew Glover said. “People aren’t paying attention. Distracted driving is the most common reason people get into accidents.”
Phone-related fines have grown in recent years, but Detective Sgt. Fred Whitcomb of the Stowe police doesn’t think that’s deterring the cellphone problem at all.
Police can write tickets for illegally using handheld phones while driving and run campaigns on the dangers of distracted driving “until we’re blue in the face, but people just aren’t willing to put down those cellphones,” Whitcomb said.
By the numbers
This year there has been at least one fatal crash in 12 of Vermont’s 14 counties. Chittenden County had the most with 10 incidents that led to 12 deaths. Seven crashes in Windsor County caused seven deaths and six crashes in Washington County caused six deaths. Five crashes caused five deaths in Orleans County; four fatal crashes were reported in Addison, Caledonia and Rutland counties, with four deaths in Rutland County and five each in Addison and Caledonia. Franklin County has had three fatal crashes and three deaths; Lamoille County had two deaths in two fatal crashes and Bennington, Orange and Windham counties each had one fatality.
The volume of fatal crashes through 9 1/2 months is much higher than last year, but only slightly above the death toll in 2017 and 2018.
There were 47 fatalities due to motor vehicle crashes by mid-September both years.
In 2017, by year’s end, 70 people had died in crashes; in 2018, that number was 69. The 47 people who died in all of 2019 is the lowest mark since 44 died in 2014.
The deadliest year in the last decade was 2012, when 77 people died on the highways.
Perhaps surprisingly, warmer months seem to be most dangerous. More than half of this year’s fatalities happened in June, July and August — 11 in June, 15 in July and nine in August.
However, an uptick in November and December, when snow begins to fly, is also typical, police said.