On March 28, 2023

Vermont car crash fatalities hit a 10-year high in 2022

By Taylor Slonaker/VTDigger

In 2022, the number of people who died in car crashes in Vermont hit a 10-year high, according to preliminary data recently released from the state Agency of Transportation.

Car crash fatalities have risen in Vermont since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, following a significant decrease in 2019. In 2022, there were 77 fatalities, three more than in 2021. Last year marked the highest number of fatalities since 2012, according to the agency.

The 77 deaths in 2022 occurred in 74 crashes, the highest number of fatal crashes since 2006, when Vermont had 77 fatal crashes, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the state Agency of Transportation. In 2022, there were three crashes in which two people died. 

Speeding, alcohol and drug use were responsible for many of last year’s fatal accidents, according to the findings. 

Of the 74 fatal crashes in 2022, 57% of operators were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, up from 46% in 2018. The report found 16% of the operators in fatal crashes had Delta 9 THC, the psychoactive chemical part of cannabis, present in their systems, down from 29% in 2021.

Seat belt use, or lack of it, appears to be a contributing factor in many fatal crashes. Even though Vermonters’ use of seat belts has been steadily climbing since 2020, and in 2022 reached its highest-ever rate at 90%, 63% of people who died in crashes were not wearing seat belts in 2022. 

The percentage of drivers and passengers involved in fatal crashes who were not wearing seat belts has been climbing in recent years. In 2020, 58% of fatalities were unbelted, and in 2021 the number rose to 61%.

Joyce Pressley, an associate professor in epidemiology and health policy and management at the Columbia University Medical Center, studies trends in fatal motor vehicle crash data. 

“There’s an association with people committing multiple risky driving behaviors. So if they are impaired, that impairment — especially from alcohol — is more likely to come at night. And if they’re impaired, they’re less likely to restrain themselves, and they’re more likely to drive unsafely and more likely to speed,” Pressley said in an interview.

In Pressley’s own work, she has been looking at why there was a rise in fatal crashes during the pandemic. 

“My hypothesis is that the suspension of the high visibility programs in most jurisdictions across the U.S.,” due to the pandemic, “contributed to higher mortality,” Pressley said. 

High-visibility programs combine “enforcement, visibility elements, and a publicity strategy to educate the public and promote voluntary compliance with the law,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

Vermont has the highest percentage of people dying unbelted in fatal crashes in the United States, Pressley said. 

She pointed out that Vermont’s seat belt restraint law is classified as a secondary enforcement law for adults. When a police officer spots a driver who’s not wearing a seat belt, that driver cannot be pulled over unless he or she commits another infraction. The driver cannot be ticketed solely for driving unrestrained.

One exception is for drivers under 18; the law allows them to be pulled over for failing to wear a seat belt.

Thirty-four states allow police to pull over a driver who’s not wearing a seat belt without any other violations. Fifteen states, including Vermont, require a second violation before pulling over an unbelted driver. New Hampshire is the only state that does not require the use of a seat belt for adults. 

“The fact that you have one of the highest proportions of people dying unrestrained is something that could deserve further examination and consideration by your legislators,” Pressley said. 

Nationwide, there is a focus on initiatives to reduce fatal car crashes. The U.S. Department of Transportation had launched a “Call to Action” campaign to promote public awareness of accident-related deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 31,785 people died in car accidents nationwide in the first nine months of 2022; no national figures are available for the final quarter of that year. Full-year statistics are available for 2020, when 38,824 people died in car crashes, and for 2021, when 42,915 people died — up 10.5% from 2020.

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