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2015 Traffic Crash Injuries and Costs Defy Historic Improvements in Highway Safety

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:

2014 2015 change
reported crashes 17,346 17,791 2.6%
damages ($M) 99 104 5.1%
injuries 5,090 5,525 8.5%
fatalities 136 133 -2.2%
drinking drivers 22.2% 24.6% 10.8%
DUI fatal 47 48 2.1%
DUI injury 583 721 23.7%
economic loss ($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:

2015 Crash Report, Table 2-2, p. 4.
2015 Crash Report, Table 2-2, p. 4.

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.



  1. mike from iowa 2016-11-30

    It’s them damn permissive Dems, the ones that want everyone to be able to do their own thing w/o restrictions cause these numbers to go up. Throw them all out of gubmint.

  2. leslie 2016-11-30

    2007 seems to be a time of change. What factors, i wonder?

  3. gregg spindler 2016-11-30

    South Dakota’s traffic crashes and fatalities have decreased. Some of the credit is the fleet cars today are far safer than 20 years ago (think airbags, anti-lock brakes, etc). But improvements are NOT true with respect to DUI since 2007.

    DUI deterrence is emphatically not working. If it was there would be noted improvements.

    DUI crashes have remained at approximately 1,000 per year since 2007. Prior to that time DUI crashes averaged about 1,200. DUI crashes are perhaps the best single indicate of “how much” drunk driving is occurring. Because they flat-lined starting in 2007 it is an indicator of no progress. DUI fatalities are highly variable year-to-year but have remained flat since 2007 (i.e., no progress).

    Part of the pre-2007 decline was federal funding for increased enforcement actions under the TEA-21 Transportation bill from the Clinton years. Places like Charles Mix (where Maegan was killed) had monthly sobriety check points and more patrols. Statewide the toll dropped. The progress ended when the fed’s funding quit.

    What also happened is the SB 70 criminal justice reforms of 2013 shifted considerable DUI financial burdens on to local governments while the fines associated with DUI go to the state. This creates a disincentive for law enforcement and prosecutors that are already overwhelmed with dealing with DUI, the most common arrest they make.

    With respect to DUI law and policy, it proves the quote attributed to Einstein “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

  4. Douglas Wiken 2016-11-30

    Shut every business selling booze one week after a fatal crash related to alcohol, and the liquor industry will solve the DUI problem. I worked for SD:ASAP about 40 years ago. We got the first laws related to fatal drunken drivers finally passed. There were nearly twice as many fatal crashes then and the first data we got with blood tests on crash fatalities showed 68% of those crashes involved alcohol. Seat belts have saved hundreds of lives since then.

    Some of variation in crashes is related to economic conditions and price of gasoline affecting millions of miles traveled.

    MADD was pushing for increased DWI penalties back then. I thought it made sense at the time, but over the years saw too many guys getting out of prison after long jail terms driving drunk again within a year or even days after getting out of prison. Long prison terms cost taxpayers a lot of money, and may not be solving any problems. Larry Long’s approach with leg monitors, weekly checkins, etc. seem to make more sense. Keep the guys working and supporting their families and keep them from driving drunk too. Longer prison terms may be just more of the insanity.

  5. gregg spindler 2016-11-30

    Douglas Wiken – your points are well taken. But the offenders have to get caught and convicted in the first place. Therein lies the problem. They’re not getting caught as frequently as the mid-2000’s and fewer still convicted, even though the amount of drunk driving continues.

    Most first time offenders simply pay a nominal fine, attend a class or two and pay the insurance company a lot of money.

    Of course, Ron Fischer, the guy that killed Maegan and Dr. Rob Klumb, was a first time offender the majority of DUI killers. He had no license, no registration and no insurance and was a career drug user and alcoholic at age 28, failing in-patient rehab twice. Anti-social behaviors of people like Fischer are tolerated even though they are clear and present dangers to public safety.

  6. mike from iowa 2016-11-30

    What if people were allowed to drive with guns handy and shoot drunk drivers before they crash?

    Maybe certain people could threaten to beat up drunk drivers. It could work.

  7. scott 2016-11-30

    In my opinion DUI enforcement has become such a major time consumer for law enforcement, that little time is spent doing other traffic enforcement. In my younger years I remember seeing Troopers on the highway all the time and people were more concerned about being stopped for speeding. Now I rarely see a Trooper, other than patrolling around town looking for DUI’s. Everyone knows you can do about anything on our rural roads and have a very minimal chance of being stopped. I see so many risky moves being made on our rural roads, it just scares me some times. Then add to that equation smart phones and the distracted driver.

    We need to get law enforcement back out on our rural roads to get drivers under control. Things like reduced speed zones through smaller towns and No Passing Zones mean absolutely nothing to most divers anymore. I hate to slow down going through some small towns as drivers behind me will ride my ass and just illegally pass me. Some people are such risk takers with everyone’s life that they will pass you with an oncoming vehicle so close that there is no way to complete the pass without drivers being forced to slam on the brakes and take the shoulders.

    The issue is that we are all concerned about numbers and making DUI arrests look good on stat sheets. People are being killed on our rural roads because of risk taking drivers, however Troopers are looking for that one DUI driver trying to get home on nearly empty city streets at 2am.

    Yes we need to have DUI enforcement, but DUI enforcement cannot be (and will not be) the savor of peoples lives. Law enforcement needs to spread out and cover more area while enforcing all traffic laws.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-12-01

    Douglas, I’m intrigued by your radical proposal for a dry week after a DUI crash. You’d think we could sell such a decent response out of respect for the dead, sort of like flying the flag at half-mast.

    Scott, I’d happily do away with checkpoints and send those troopers back to more dispersed patrols. But what about a checkpoint at the bar: for the hour up to closing time, a couple HP or local cops stand at the door and require everyone with keys in hand to blow?

  9. Douglas Wiken 2016-12-01

    Cory, I did not put in details of my idea. I figured one day would be sufficient. A week would certainly catch their attention, and I doubt grocery stores and chain stores would continue to sell alcohol.

    I also suggested a notice on the door of the closed facility indicating it is closed because there was a crash fatality related to drunken driving one week previous.

    I also think a license to purchase alcohol be required, and every alcoholic beverage container be permanently marked with the sellers name and business.

    Marcy’s law may make knowing who the drunks are that are out risking their, their passengers, and other drivers’ lives.

    The liquor industry shifts enormous costs onto innocent drivers, victims, and tax payers. It is time they carried more responsibility and more of the costs.

    South Dakota court system has made dram shop laws impossible. It is time for an initiative or constitutional amendment if the idiotic court decision cannot be undone any other way.

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-12-04

    I like including the notice on the door… or in the case of Hy-Vee and Kessler’s, on the ropes or police tape put up in front of the alcohol section. Amendment S be darned, include a picture of the victim and the drunk driver: “This person is dead. This person killed him by driving drunk. Don’t drink and drive.”

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