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December 22. 2012 10:14PM

Bad news followed good regarding fatal auto crashes

It sounds like a grim trend: So far this year, 104 people have been killed in 97 crashes on New Hampshire roadways. That's already a lot more than in all of 2011, when 90 people died in 84 crashes.

And the holiday driving season has just begun.

Still, it's worth noting that 2011 had the lowest number of motor vehicle fatalities in at least 50 years, both here and nationally, according to highway safety officials.

It appears that 2012 statistics for New Hampshire will be more in line with the numbers for previous years. In 2010, 128 people were killed in 120 crashes; in 2009, 110 people died in 97 crashes; and in 2008, 127 people were killed in 138 crashes.

An analysis of fatal crash statistics provided by the state Department of Safety shows that increases in motorcycle fatalities and pedestrian deaths explain most of the rise in traffic deaths this year.

The number of crashes may fluctuate from year to year, but the primary causes remain the same, unfortunately, according to Sgt. Matthew Shapiro, highway safety coordinator in the Special Services Unit of the New Hampshire State Police. He said he's not surprised at what the data show about the causes of most of those traffic fatalities.

"About 75 percent of total fatal accidents relate to impaired driving, distracted driving and speed," Shapiro said. Add a lack of seatbelt use to those three factors, he went on, and it's a deadly picture.

"Very, very, very few crashes are actually accidents, where you have a moose step out in the road in front of you on a dark night," Shapiro said. "It's almost always related to behavioral issues."

The one change that jumped out for Shapiro in this year's statistics is a "tremendous" increase in what highway safety experts call "vulnerable-user" crashes. That includes motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians, who are all at greater risk of injury if they're involved in a crash.

This year to date, 24 motorcyclists and four motorcycle passengers have died in crashes. Last year, 14 motorcycle operators were killed, and in 2010, 26 motorcyclists and two passengers died in crashes.

And so far in 2012, seven adults and two children have been killed in pedestrian accidents. That's up from the four adult pedestrians killed during the same period in 2011 but comparable with the nine adults who died in 2010.

August was the deadliest month this year, with 22 people killed in 20 separate crashes. September was next, with 11 crashes and 12 deaths.

Shapiro said there were 24 fatal crashes in just a five-week period in those two months. That prompted the state police to increase patrols and post warnings about the deadly numbers on electronic message boards positioned on the highways over Labor Day weekend.

"We were trying to do something to turn the tide," he said.

They repeated those messages over Thanksgiving weekend, to reach visitors and residents alike.

Shapiro said the increases in motorcycle and pedestrian fatalities account for most of this year's jump over last year's totals. But he said it's difficult to speculate about just why those two categories spiked this year.

"It would be fair to say we had a very long, dry summer and you saw a lot of motorcycles on the road and a lot of pedestrians," he said.

Shapiro said it's difficult to pinpoint the factors that can cause a crash to turn fatal. "There's a lot of chance in what happens," he said.

But drivers can do a lot to protect themselves, he said.

While New Hampshire does not have a mandatory adult seatbelt law, an estimated 75 percent of drivers here use their seatbelts voluntarily, he said. But about 71 percent of fatal crashes here involve a lack of seatbelt use.

"You're talking about the 25 percent of people who don't use their seatbelts are involved in 71 percent of fatal accidents over the last 10 years or so," he said. "There's no doubt that higher use of seatbelts would wind up preventing fatalities."

Through Dec. 2 of this year, a lack of seatbelt use was noted in 57 percent of fatal crashes. Seatbelts were used in just 13 percent, and for 29 percent of the crashes, seatbelt use is unknown. In 2011, two-thirds of fatal crashes involved a lack of seatbelts.

There's a similar statistic related to the use of motorcycle helmets, which are also not mandatory in New Hampshire. Helmets were not used in 63 percent of fatal motorcycle crashes in 2012.

Shapiro said he's seen firsthand the difference a seatbelt can make: "Seeing a rollover crash that looked like a NASCAR wreck that had zero injuries because the occupants were seatbelted."

"Then you take a minor crash, maybe a rollover, where a person is ejected, and it's a fatal accident."

While safety features built into today's vehicles - such as airbags and anti-lock brakes - have played a key role in reducing fatalities, other devices we've come to depend upon are distracting us to death, highway safety experts say.

Shapiro said research shows that being on a cell phone while driving makes you four times more likely to be in a serious crash. That's about the same effect you'll have from driving with a .08 blood-alcohol content, the legal limit, he said.

Meanwhile, Shapiro also noted a disturbing increase in recent years in the number of alcohol-related fatal crashes. From 2009 to 2011, 41 percent of fatal crashes were related to impairment by alcohol and/or drugs, he said.

That's why those electronic message boards on the highways will target impaired driving right through New Year's Day.

Peter Thomson, coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency, said the state already has done a lot to combat impaired driving; it was the seventh in the country to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit to .08, he said.

Still, he said, the statistics show: "People are still drinking and driving."

"We've made a lot of inroads, but you'd like to see it down a whole lot more than that," Thomson said.

Earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported there were 32,367 traffic fatalities nationwide in 2011, a 1.9 percent decrease from the previous year. That was the lowest level since 1949.

Given everything drivers are doing wrong, Shapiro said, he's concerned about proposed legislation to raise the speed limits on certain highways.

Adding 10 mph to highway speeds increases the required braking distance by 81 feet, or 5 car lengths, he said.

Add in distracted driving, he said, and even a one-second delay in reaction time means you'll need an extra 190 feet, or 12 car lengths. And that's under ideal weather and road conditions, he said.

Thomson, too, opposes raising the highway speed limit. "It isn't like out in the Midwest where you just go straight for 400 miles and if you happen to go off the road, you're just going into a sand pit or a field or something like that.

"We've got trees, rocks, black ice, you name it," he said. "

Thomson offered holiday driving advice: "Slow down. If you're driving, no alcohol. Use your seatbelt."

"And have a merry Christmas."

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