DES MOINES | The number of traffic deaths in Iowa has stagnated over the past three years after decades of steadily falling numbers.
However, the rate of traffic deaths per miles driven continues to decline, if ever so slightly.
There were 321 traffic fatalities in Iowa in 2015. That’s similar to the 322 traffic deaths in 2014 and 317 in 2013. The number of fatalities is on pace to increase slightly in 2016, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.
In Woodbury County, traffic fatalities also were flat, with 14 in both 2014 and 2013. The number in the county jumped from 4 to 10 from 2011 to 2012.
Statewide, the four-year plateau slows a decades-long trend of declining traffic fatalities in Iowa.
Despite some short-term peaks and valleys, Iowa traffic deaths have steadily decreased over the past 46 years: There were 912 traffic deaths in Iowa in 1970, the farthest back the state DOT keeps such data, and that plunged to 626 traffic deaths in 1980, 464 in 1990 and 445 in 2000.
Traffic deaths dipped below 400 in 2009 and continued to fall, but they have leveled off from 2013 to 2016.
“You want to continue to see that go down, and over the last three years, we have plateaued,” said Pat Hoye, chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau and a former Iowa State Patrol chief. “You want to see a drop every year, obviously. … It seems like we’ve stagnated over the last three years.”
Iowa’s numbers appear similar to a national trend, which shows traffic fatalities rising slightly after years of reductions.
The good news in Iowa is while traffic fatalities have stopped falling, the rate of fatalities relative to miles driven continues to drop, albeit slightly, because while fatalities are leveling off, people are driving more.
There were 10 traffic fatalities for every 1 billion miles driven on Iowa roads in 2014, the last year both sets of data are available. That’s down from 12 fatalities per 1 billion miles driven in 2010, and a long way down from 57 deaths per billion miles in 1970.
Safety improvements to vehicle and roadway designs, increased seat belt use and reduced rates of drunken driving have resulted in the long-term reductions in traffic fatalities, officials said.
The current plateau may be a result of plateaus in some of those same safety measures, officials said.
Hoye said compliance with the state’s front-seat seat belt law has risen from the mid-80s to 93 percent but has “kind of stalled” there.
“That is going to be a major component in reducing fatalities,” Hoye said. "You’re not going to have the great success you want unless we do something in that arena (of seat belt use)."
Similarly, Hoye said the percent of traffic fatalities that are alcohol-related has hovered around 30 percent for a few years.
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“To me, that’s an ‘Are you kidding me,’ because we’ve been talking about (the perils of drunken driving) forever,” said Steve Gent, the Iowa DOT’s director of traffic and safety.
Hoye and Gent said there are multiple ways the state can get its number of traffic fatalities falling again.
Both stressed seat belt use and said an all-occupant seat belt law would help reduce traffic deaths. Currently, only front-seat occupants are required by law to be buckled.
Gent said that of the 51 traffic deaths thus far in 2016 in Iowa, roughly half of the individuals who died were not wearing a seat belt.
“That’s just unbelievable to imagine. That really says a lot of things about how important safety belts are,” Gent said. “If everyone was wearing them, our figures would probably drop in half.”
Hoye said ignition interlocks, which prevent a vehicle from starting until the driver blows sober breath into the device, would help drop the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths.
And mobile phone use while driving has become a growing problem in recent years, Hoye said. He said more than half of traffic deaths involve one vehicle leaving its lane, “and we believe a huge portion of those are distracted driving crashes.”
Iowa lawmakers have been wrestling with whether to strengthen the state’s texting-while-driving law. Under current law, drivers may not text while driving, but police cannot stop a driver for texting. Officers may cite drivers for texting only after stopping the driver for a separate offense. Lawmakers have considered legislation that would allow officers to stop drivers for texting.
John Godar, president of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association and a Linn County deputy, said the association plans in 2017 to introduce and advocate for legislation that would require hands-free phone use in a moving vehicle.
Whatever the means, Gent hopes Iowa is able to get its traffic deaths trending down once again.
Gent said with roughly 300 traffic deaths in Iowa each year and a state population of 3 million, that means roughly 1 in 10,000 Iowans will die in a traffic accident each year.
Gent said to visualize that impact, one can imagine Iowa State University’s football stadium filled to its capacity of roughly 60,000, and six of those people will die in the coming year from vehicle accidents.
Hoye said he thinks that with the right steps, Iowa can break the current plateau of traffic deaths.
“I’m convinced we can continue to see a progressive decline down, if we move forward and reach some of those goals we’re trying to set. I’m convinced we can continue to see a steady decline,” Hoye said. “We’re certainly not satisfied with 300 fatalities a year. In our office, we consider it unacceptable. It’s just too many lives that are perishing.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the rate of traffic fatalities on Iowa roads in 2014, 2010, and 1970.