To calm traffic, we must also calm our community

For anyone wondering, “Is it just me or has driving around Southwest Washington become way more stressful over the past few years?” we have some good and bad news for you. 

The good news? It’s not just you. 

The bad news? Washington drivers are at greater risk now than they have been in quite a while. In fact, as The Seattle Times noted in a Jan. 1, 2022 article, “2021 was the deadliest on Washington roads in 15 years.” 

Though the state experienced far fewer drivers on the roads in 2020 thanks to more people working from home and the closure of many in-person businesses during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of fatalities and serious injury crashes did not fall. One reason was likely the fact that drivers prone to speeding were able to take full advantage of those uncongested roadways. Speed-related collisions in Washington state jumped 18 percent from 2019 to 2020. 

Many traffic safety experts had hoped the number of fatalities and serious-injury crashes would decrease after more people filtered back to their offices, restaurants and retail shops in 2021. Unfortunately, the statistics remained higher than ever. 

“We have talked 2020 to death, but it is the end of 2021 and this was way worse,” Staci Hoff, research director for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, told The Seattle Times in December 2021. “The increases that we’re seeing in very serious crashes are not subsiding.”

Washington state was not alone. A federal report released in October 2021, showed the number of U.S. traffic deaths during the first six months of 2021 — 20,160 — was higher than at any point since 2006 and was actually the greatest six-month percentage increase the U.S. Department of Transportation had recorded since it started keeping track of traffic fatalities in 1975. 

“Roadway fatalities and the fatality rate declined consistently for 30 years, but progress has stalled in the last decade and went in the wrong direction in 2020,” the DOT reported in October 2021. 

The federal statistics showed traffic-related fatalities not only increased by nearly 8 percent from 2019 to 2020, but that speeding-related crashes with fatalities were up 11 percent and fatalities among adults in their late 20s and early 30s increased 18 percent during that same time period. 

Distracted driving also increased during the pandemic, according to the 2021 Travelers Risk Index, with drivers reporting significant increases in the number of times they’d used a mobile device while driving in 2020 and 2021 versus pre-pandemic. One-fourth of the respondents said they felt more pressure to be available to answer work-related calls and texts during the pandemic. 

Road rage incidents have also been on the rise over the past few years — and not just during the pandemic. According to a 2016 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, traffic fatalities related to road rage, or aggressive driving, increased almost 500 percent in the decade between 2006 and 2016. Likewise, in 2017, The Trace, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigating gun violence in the U.S., found the number of drivers who threatened another driver with a gun increased over 250 percent from 2014 to 2017 with fewer than 247 such incidents in 2014 compared to 620 in 2016 and another 325 in just the first half of 2017. 

“Disputes on the road take this dangerous turn most frequently in big states with loose gun laws,” The Trace noted in its August 2017 report on gun-involved road rage, adding that “armed road rage is most common in Texas and Florida, pioneers of concealed carry and the culture of going armed in public.” 

Psychologists have pointed out that research shows basic relaxation techniques — including deep breathing and visualizing alternative ways of coping with frustrating driving situations — are simple, effective ways of helping diffuse “high-anger” drivers who are at much higher risk of causing the types of speeding- and road rage-related traffic collisions that have shattered so many lives. 

It is no wonder the number of aggressive driving crashes have ticked up over the past few years. Thanks, in great part, to Russia’s steady disinformation campaign on Facebook and other social media platforms that was meant to sow discord in the United States and a U.S. president who spent four years demonizing our country’s free press, as well as Americans who didn’t adhere to his far-right talking points, Americans have become increasingly divided, angry and — at least for those who identify as a Republican — accepting of violence against our own elected government officials. 

As Camas and Washougal officials mull the installation of new lighting, traffic-calming devices and intersection improvements that could make a dent in the number of local traffic fatalities and serious-injury crashes, we urge them to also consider how local government might be able to help bring the community back together and counteract the disinformation and hateful rhetoric that flourishes on social media sites and in far-right media. 

To help diffuse the anger and misconceptions that have helped divide us over the past several years — and that has undoubtedly led to more road rage on our streets — we are going to need more citywide “listening posts” like those we’ve seen work at the local school district level, more community-building programs like the Camas Public Library’s 2021 “community healing” themed Read for Change, and more movement on the types of recommendations the city of Camas’ equity steering committee recommended in November 2021, especially the formation of an ad hoc Equity Advisory Committee and the idea of partnering with community and cultural organizations and hosting community events to further support efforts of equity, diversity and inclusion within the city. 

We don’t have to accept an increasingly hostile, divided, angry society or this recent uptick in aggressive driving crashes. There are ways to change for the better and to make our community — and roads — safer for all of us.