The number of deaths on Vermont roadways appears to be down by about 30% from last year but officials at the Vermont State Police and the Vermont Agency of Transportation are not sure why.
According to figures provided by the Vermont State Police, or VSP, the tentative numbers for 2019 are 47 deaths resulting from 44 crashes.
Officials at the VSP and the Vermont Agency of Transportation, or AOT, all said they believed 47 deaths was too many for Vermont.
Those numbers are tentative because if someone dies as a result of injuries from a 2019 crash within the first 30 days of 2020, that person’s death would be added to the list of fatalities from 2019.
In 2018, there were 69 deaths resulting from 61 crashes. 2019 saw 22 less, or a reduction of about 32%, and 17 less crashes, or a reduction of about 28%.
In 2017, there were 70 deaths resulting from 64 crashes. 2019 saw 23 less deaths than 2017, or a reduction of about 33%, and 20 less crashes or a reduction of about 31%.
In 2016, there were 64 deaths resulting from 59 crashes. 2019 saw 17 less deaths than 2016, or a reduction of about 26%, and 15 less crashes or a reduction of about 25%.
Lt. Tara Thomas, commander of safety programs for the Vermont State Police, said the reduction was “unexplainable.”
“We wish we knew what the formula was to keep the numbers down. 47 is still too many for the state police. That’s 47 families that don’t have a loved one with them, so in our eyes, it’s still high. We’re averaging just way too many each month,” she said.
The numbers fluctuate every year, said Mandy White, a data analyst from AOT in the State Highway Safety Office.
“In 2014, we had 44 fatalities which is our lowest year on record. So we aren’t quite there but we are down 30% from last year,” she said.
White said Vermont was still seeing about 50% of the fatal crashes involved impaired driving. That 50% could go up, White said, but she didn’t have toxicology reports for all the end-of-year fatal crashes.
According to Thomas, from the 47 fatal crashes, five were believed to have involved drivers who had been drinking alcohol, 15 were suspected to have been driving under the influence of drugs and two were suspected to have been impaired from alcohol and drugs.
“We love to see the low numbers but with just a few tweaks with operator responsibility, think about how much lower these numbers could be,” she said.
However White pointed out, some who died on the road were following all safety precautions but died because of being hit by another driver.
Evelyn McFarlane, highway safety plan coordinator for the AOT safety office, said the state had seen a reduction in the number of fatal crashes where speed had been a factor. In 2019, about 30% of the fatal crashes were believed to have involved speeding.
McFarlane said about half of the fatalities were motorists who were not wearing seat belts.
“We know that over 90% of the crashes are caused by human behavior, poor choices on the road,” she said. “I think we would give credit back to Vermonters who are driving on the roads or others who are driving on Vermont roads. People are making better choices,” she said.
AOT approaches its safety efforts with what McFarlane calls the four E’s: engineering, enforcement, education and emergency response.
Thomas said as much as the troopers of the VSP want to reduce fatal crashes, it’s a partnership between drivers and emergency responders.
Speeding, aggressive driving, seatbelt use, driving without distractions or impairment, are all choices drivers can make, McFarlane said.
McFarlane said one factor that helped keep the overall number low was an unusually small number in the first quarter of four fatalities. It’s the lowest number in the first quarter going back to 2012 although there were five in the first quarter of 2015.
For the last quarter, however, there were more crash deaths at 21, than any quarter going back to 2012.
Another bright spot for Vermont was that despite the reputation for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve as high travel days, no fatal crashes were reported in the state on any of those holidays last year.
McFarlane said Vermont has been seeing a downward trend overall since goals were set in a 2004 Highway Safety Plan to reduce the number of major crashes. Since 2004, the number has decreased by 25.7%. A goal of reducing those crashes by 10% was set in 2011 but by 2016, the number was actually reduced by 15%.