The Department of Public Safety has released its 2015 Crash Report. In his cover letter, Governor Daugaard chooses to highlight two statistically insignificant pieces of data:
In each Crash Report, there are positive outcomes to share and evidence of challenges that South Dakotans face when it comes to motor vehicle safety.
The overall numbers of drivers in alcohol-involved fatal crashes is up slightly from last year’s report. In 2015, South Dakota had 41 intoxicated drivers who were involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes, compared to 40 in 2014.
However, the good news is the number of drivers and passengers who died while not wearing seatbelts in 2015 is down seven percent from 2014. While that number is still too high, we are happy to see a reverse in the trend [Governor Dennis Daugaard, 2015 Crash Report, Department of Public Safety, November 2016].
I say statistically insignificant because a change from 41 to 40 out of over 17,000 crashes doesn’t tell us much. The non-seatbelted fatalities figures are even smaller, down from 30 to 28. Neither decline represents a real reversal or a trend; both are statistical noise, possibly explained by one vehicle.
If we want numbers that can inform policy, we need to look at bigger numbers that can’t be explained by one motorist misfortune:
|economic loss ($M)||402||449||11.7%|
We killed fewer people on our highways last year, but we still had more costly wrecks. Injuries jumped 8.5%; alcohol-related injuries jumped 23.7%. Direct property damage rose 5.1%; economic losses 11.7%. All of those unpleasant increases exceed the 2.6% increase in reported crashes, indicating that, for some reason, we got more buck from each bang.
That snapshot suggests some strange danger cropping up in last year’s driving. (Anyone care to speculate on the impact of raising our Interstate speed limit from 75 to 80? Ah, but the Crash Report says that while Interstates represent a larger percentage of fatal crashes than they do of total crashes, they make up a smaller percentage of injury crashes.)
Yet zooming out to the three-decade view shows we’re still no worse off than when we were listening to the Top Gun soundtrack:
Comparing 2015 to 1986, we have 64% more registered vehicles traveling 49% more miles (over 93 million miles, the distance to the sun!) but only 30% more crashes, about the same number of fatal crashes, and fewer injuries.
And over just the last decade, alcohol-related fatalities and injuries have declined 15%, while DUI arrests have declined 18% and DUI convictions have dropped 27%. Whatever we’re doing—more checkpoints, more counseling, sobering up culturally—appears to be deterring drunk driving.
Nonetheless, Gregg Spindler, whose daughter Maegan was killed by a drunk driver in Pickstown in 2013, says the 2015 uptick is part of a rise since our 2011 lows that shows the need for the Legislature to toughen DUI penalties. The 2016 Legislature rebuffed two DUI reforms that Spindler pushed; now he urges the 2017 Legislature to act or perhaps face an initiated measure:
What will happen in 2017? The problem of DUI has only gotten worse since the July 2013 DUI killing of our daughter. We call upon the Governor and Legislature to think about the victims and change DUI laws and practices. Make Vehicular Homicide “a crime of violence”. Implement all the 2013 NTSB recommendations. Mandate 24/7 or ignition interlocks for all DUI convicts. Suspend licenses and impound vehicles upon arrest. Fund local governments that bear the brunt of DUI costs. Stop suspended imposition, allowing offenders to escape any consequences. Stop pandering to defense lawyers. Politicians should heed Psalm 37:27 “Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.” If politicians choose to fail DUI victims again, perhaps an Initiated Measure can change things [Gregg Spindler, letter to the editor, received 2016.11.29].
I’d suggest the initiative threat may take the pressure off the Legislature to do anything. I’d also suggest that the success this year of Amendment S, the crime victims bill of rights, shows that a DUI reform would pass easily: run just one ad, with Gregg Spindler holding a photo of his daughter, and voters will mark Yes overwhelmingly.