In Robeson County, about 100 miles south of Raleigh, 122 people were killed in traffic accidents between 2014 and 2016, giving the county the highest death rate per registered vehicle in North Carolina.
Now a group of community leaders has begun trying to figure out how to reduce that number to zero. The Robeson County Vision Zero Task Force will develop public safety campaigns and other strategies for preventing serious crashes on highways in the county.
“When you are No. 1 in that kind of category for such an extended period of time, it’s time to at least make efforts to do something about it.” says Grady Hunt, a native of Robeson County and a state Board of Transportation member who is leading the task force.
Robeson is joining a state and national movement to improve driving safety with the stated goal of zero deaths. Several federal agencies launched the Road to Zero initiative in 2016, the same year the state began its own Vision Zero program, with a website full of data and information about safe and unsafe driving and a traffic safety conference and expo planned for April in Wilmington. Some local governments, including the City of Durham, have followed with programs of their own.
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These campaigns are cropping up at a time when decades of improvement in highway safety has seemingly stalled. The rate of crash deaths per vehicle miles traveled bottomed out in 2014, both in North Carolina and nationwide, and ticked up the following two years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon announced in April that the number of people killed in accidents in Robeson County had risen to 53 in 2017, from 37 the year before (figures for the rest of the state won't be available until June).
Asked if they’re being naive about traffic deaths, those involved in the campaigns say theirs is the only goal worth setting.
“When people tell me that it’s impossible I respond by saying, ‘Well, what number is acceptable?’” said Tracy Anderson of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at N.C. State University and the state’s Vision Zero coordinator. “Because that is the foundation of Vision Zero – that no death is acceptable.”
Driving is much safer than it was 50 years ago. In 1968, when there was less than a third as many cars on the road in North Carolina as there are now, 1,869 people died in crashes – 428 more than in 2016, according to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. The rate of deaths per miles traveled is less than a fifth of what it was that year.
Lots of factors have contributed to the decline in highway deaths, says Daniel Carter, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill. They include government policies, such as requiring seat belt use and graduated licensing programs for teen drivers, as well as improvements to cars and trucks, such as airbags, anti-lock brakes and better “crashworthiness” – the way your car protects you when it gets hit.
Carter says highway deaths tend to increase when the economy gets better, as more people get on the road to travel to work or take trips. You can mark recessions and recoveries over the last several decades in the fluctuations of overall traffic deaths.
But even accounting for the increase in driving in a better economy, the last couple of years marked a reversal of fortunes. The amount of miles driven in North Carolina rose 7.7 percent from 2014 to 2016, according to NCDOT; the number of people killed in traffic accidents went up 12.8 percent.
The proliferation of cellphones, GPS systems and other electronics in cars and trucks has raised concerns that drivers are increasingly distracted, leading to more accidents. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s report on 2016 fatalities showed a decline in the number of deaths caused by distractions that year.
Instead, the federal researchers found increases in fatalities blamed on other chronic human failings – not wearing seat belts, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and speeding.
Lack of seat belts is a particular problem in Robeson, where 42.4 percent of people who died in accidents in the last five years were not restrained, according to NCDOT. That compares with 31.6 percent of people killed in crashes statewide during that time. Alcohol was a factor in 30.3 percent of fatal crashes in Robeson, and speed in 25.8 percent.
The numbers show where the Robeson task force will focus its attention, Hunt said.
“In order to make any inroads, you’re having to change people’s habits, behaviors and lifestyles,” he said. “If we don’t work at it from that angle, it’s hard to be successful.”
Eventually, new technology will likely drive down highway deaths, said Carter. Self-driving vehicles, now being tested in several places around the country, are expected to eliminate the human factors that cause so many accidents. But even interim improvements, such as cars that warn drivers when they’ve drifted from their lanes or brake automatically to avoid collisions, should result in fewer deaths, Carter said.
“If a vehicle has smarter technology to keep it on the road even if a driver makes a mistake, then I think we’ll see fewer crashes,” he said.
But zero? Hunt says in Robeson he will be happy if the county stops being a leader in traffic deaths and moves toward becoming average.
“To think that you’re actually going to get to zero, it’s just not realistic,” he said. “If we save a life, then it’s worthwhile.”
How the Triangle measures up
Robeson County ranks first in North Carolina in terms of fatal crashes per 1,000 registered vehicles. Here’s how Triangle counties stack up.
1. Robeson: .38
38. Johnston: .17
42. Franklin: .16
45. Chatham: .16
80. Durham: .12
93. Orange: .10
95. Wake: .08
Source: N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, North Carolina 2016 Traffic Crash Facts