Twenty five percent more people died in car wrecks statewide in 2016 compared to the year before, according to traffic data released Tuesday by the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety.
The report pointed to four main causes for the rise in deaths: speed, seat belts, distracted driving and pedestrians.
For first responders, the increase in preventable wrecks is frustrating, Piedmont Emergency Medical Services Chief Phillip Winkles said Tuesday.
“Sometimes I get to a wreck and I just want to tell the person to wake up, pay attention,” Winkles said.
In Calhoun County, there were 26 fatalities in 2016, an increase from 15 the year before, according to the center.
David Brown, a research associate with the center, noted that speed, a lack of people wearing seatbelts and distracted driving were chief among the causes of the fatal wrecks.
“We were trying to determine why the number of fatalities increased when compared to the increase in traffic and the overall increase in crashes,” Brown said. Traffic increased about 3 percent while wrecks increased less than 5 percent, Brown noted.
Speed, Brown said, seems to be continually increasing.
“You could be going 5 mph over the speed limit and people will pass like you’re not even there,” he said. “Over time, people just get used to that.”
For every 10 mph increase in speed the likelihood of a wreck being fatal doubles, Brown said.
“If people are traveling at 75 or 80 mph on a routine basis, when they do crash, which is almost inevitable, when they do crash the consequences are quite a bit worse,” Brown said. “Speeds above 90 mph, the chances of it being fatal is almost 100 percent. No one can survive that.”
In 2016, 403 people statewide died in wrecks and were not using a seatbelt despite one being available, according to the study.
“What we found was the general seat belt use is very good,” Brown said. “It’s above 90 percent in Alabama, but of those killed, about 45 percent were not wearing a seatbelt.”
Brown noted that the probability of dying in a wreck where a seatbelt was not used increased by 30 percent.
“That shows you the value of wearing seat belts and you wonder why people wouldn’t wear the restraints,” he said. “You’re subject to danger when you go out, and you need to protect yourself in any way you can.”
Winkles, however, said it appeared moreof the wrecks were due to distracted driving — drivers using mobile phone, eating, or playing with the radio.
“I haven’t seen any data, but when we go out on a traffic fatality, it seems to be more distracted driving wrecks,” Winkles said. “It’s definitely more younger people involved in these wrecks. Some act like their life is in these phones.”
Brown said that according to national statistics, about 16 percent of fatal crashes were caused by distracted driving. In Alabama between 2014 and 2016, distracted-driving wrecks increased 20 percent, Brown said.
“The same brain cells used to talk on the phone are the same ones you need for driving,” Brown said. “It’s not an issue of what your hands are doing but an issue of what your brain is doing.”