WisDOT: Risky driving behaviors contribute to more severe crashes

Preliminary DOT report: At least seven deadly crashes in seven days statewide

MADISON, Wis. – There have been at least seven deadly crashes in Wisconsin in the past seven days.

As of Thursday, data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation shows the state hit more than 200 crash deaths so far in 2021. That’s about on pace with 2020, when 593 people died in crashes statewide following 550 in 2019 and 576 in 2018.

An 8-year-old died because of an interstate crash in southern Dane County Wednesday, after which the driver was arrested for second-offense operating with impairment. Within a span of two days this week, two fatal crashes in Dodge County left three people, including a baby, dead.

While the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office is handling those crashes, posting on social media that they would be upping their presence in coming weeks in preparation for holiday travel, they still impact those in the community such as Beaver Dam Police Detective Dan Kuhnz.

“We hate these things when they happen,” Kuhnz said. “It just kind of shocks you, maybe into rethinking what you’re doing when in the vehicle a little more when it’s local.”

He can’t speak to what caused the recent crashes, but posted on social media, as well, asking people to tune out the distractions – notably cell phones, but he’s seen drivers’ attention diverted by tasks such as applying makeup, as well.

“We want to see people get to where they’re going,” Kuhnz said. “Unfortunately, with those distractions, sometimes that doesn’t happen.”

Preliminary data in a WisDOT report shows seven deadly crashes in the state in the last seven days, not including the crash on Highway 33 north of Beaver Dam Lake that killed a 6-month-old and 68-year-old Tuesday.

According to mapped WisDOT data, there have been 20 fatal crashes in Dane County between Jan. 1 and the end of May, killing 20 people. There were eight fatal crashes during the same time period last year, killing 11 people.

That was up markedly from the same months in 2019, when two crashes killed four people, but down from the first part of 2018 when 18 crashes resulted in 23 deaths.

Over the entirety of 2019 in Dane County, WisDOT reports 11,892 crashes and 25 resulting fatalities. Crashes went down to 7,970 in 2020, but fatalities rose to 33.

“We’re seeing maybe fewer regular crashes that aren’t fatalities, but more actual fatalities,” said David Pabst, director of transportation safety with WisDOT. “We were all hoping that when the pandemic hit, that we would see this great decrease, because 43% less traffic on the road, but what happened is people who were risk takers saw the open roads, and had more opportunity to speed.”

Pabst points to increases in risky behavior in 2019 compared to 2020, with a 26% increase in impaired driving-related fatalities, a 32% increase in unbelted occupant fatalities and a 19% increase in speed-related fatalities

“There’s just this increase in people taking, not just risks, but severe risks,” he said, adding that the speeding tickets issued for more than 100 miles-per-hour doubled.

From 2019 to 2020, interstate fatalities dropped, but increased the most on local roads and county highways. A 37% increase in motorcycle fatalities in that time frame has Pabst urging people to check twice for those on motorcycles, as well.

Traffic throughout the state is rebounding, though still about 5% below the average, according to WisDOT. Madison lags behind that, down 9% from average numbers.

Although it sounds a bit counterintuitive, Pabst is hopeful as more return to the roads, the crash deaths will slow down.

“I think as traffic increases, more on the road, that helps settle or calm what’s going on out there,” Pabst said.

Detective Kuhnz hopes people will slow down and think about others before taking their eyes off the road.

“Hopefully, these types of messages that get out convince people that hey, I’m going to put down the phone this time, I’m going to put down the beer, I’m not going to drink a beer if I’m driving, and maybe that’ll help somebody else down the road,” Kuhnz said.