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Why so many county crashes?



GHENT—In July, a 16 year old was arrested for driving, drunk, at more than 100 miles per hour on Route 20 in New Lebanon. His Honda Civic was bursting, with nine other minors packed in the car, two in the trunk. Earlier this month, two pedestrians were killed when hit by a car on Route 20 near the Lebanon Valley Speedway. Is there a trend?

Perhaps. The county’s records of charges brought for impaired driving (driving while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs) suggest that 2023 may hit a high compared to all years dating back to 2012. The county is on track to charge 376 people, as compared to 296 in 2022. But, District Attorney Paul Czajka warns that ticket data can be tricky to interpret. Among other things, “when law enforcement are involved with other serious crimes, they may not have the resources to be on the roads ticketing.”

That said, nationwide the number of driving and drunk-driving traffic deaths is rising, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The latest NHTSA data showed a more than 18% rise in deaths from all driving causes, and a 14% increase in drunk driving deaths, in the latest year tracked (2020 to 2021). More than 13,000 people died in drunk driving crashes that year and many more were injured.

The highest percentage of drunk drivers in 2021 were in the 21 to 24 age group, followed by those aged 25 to 34. Men were four times more likely to be the drivers than women.

Aggressive driving is cited by the NHTSA as a major factor in collisions. Speeding is the leading factor in crashes, with impaired driving following as number two. The increase in “rude and extreme driving behavior,” such as passing where prohibited, “following improperly,” and failure to yield at a right-of-way or to obey traffic signals, was also cited.

That said, the numbers of drivers ticketed both statewide and in the county for all causes, for speeding or for aggressive driving this year is down from five years ago, according to state data. Whether this is the result of traffic patrol staffing issues, deployment changes or other causes is unknown.

Efforts to address issues like speeding can be challenging. In New Lebanon the town monitors speeding with a speed sign, the location of which is moved from time to time. During July 2023 the monitor was placed on Route 20 near the Walter B. Howard Elementary School. The posted speed limit there is 45 m.p.h. A shocking majority of all drivers—59%—exceeded the speed limit. At some times of the day the percentage of those speeding rose above 70%. More than 15% of the offenders drove more than 10 m.p.h. above the posted limit.

The town has petitioned the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to reduce the speed limit there (and elsewhere in the town). (Speed limits are the purview of the DOT). In denying the request, the DOT has written despite the facts that “unrealistic speed limits do not invite voluntary compliance, does not reflect the behavior of the majority and results in the unlawful behavior of the majority.”

In 2014 the state Department of Health (DOH) cited traffic injuries as a “serious public health problem in Columbia County,” writing: “They are the second leading cause of injury-related deaths. Crashes are not only a significant cause of death, pain and suffering but also an economic burden to Columbia County. In 2014, the crashes on Columbia County’s roadways resulted in $6.4 million in hospitalization and emergency department (ED) charges.” Almost certainly, that figure is higher today.

‘ …. Crashes are not accidents! They are not random, uncontrollable acts of fate…’

New York State
Health Department

More importantly, the DOH pointed out that “crashes are not accidents! They are not random, uncontrollable acts of fate but occur in predictable patterns with recognizable risk factors and among identifiable populations.” In so saying, the DOH was referring to the various forms of reckless and rude driving behaviors tracked by the NHTSA.

In moral and political philosophy the concept of a social contract refers to the actual or hypothetical compact by which citizens give up some rights and accept some obligations to ensure the safety or well-being of the group as a whole.

Writer David Booth has said that driving “is perhaps our most astonishing social contract. . . .it depends on a certain amount of skill, (hopefully) a modicum of training and, most of all, trust.”

Every driver agrees, at least in theory, to abide by the rules of the road: to drive soberly, honor speed limits, stop at stop signs, yield when directed, not pass on double lines. Every driver also depends for her safety on all others following those rules.

That social compact, like so many, seems to be eroding, if the statistics and every day experience of us all are to be believed.

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