CHICAGO -- The traffic death toll in Chicago is growing, and the national count remains at historic highs, despite new car safety technology.
That means it's past time to slow down, stay sober and stop trying to multitask while you drive, according to traffic safety experts.
"We're really treading water in terms of roadway safety, which is unfortunate" said Kenneth Kolosh, manager of statistics for the National Safety Council, a safety advocacy organization based in Itasca. "We'd like to see actually very large decreases."
Safety improvements to cars, like crash-avoidance technology, "really haven't moved the needle," Kolosh said. He cited a host of factors contributing to the high death count: more cars on the roads because of low gas prices and an improved economy, distracted drivers and pedestrians, high speeds and alcohol use.
In Chicago, the number of traffic deaths rose sharply last year over 2016, to 133 from 113, an 18 percent jump, according to city transportation and police department figures. This is above the 2011-15 average of 126.2
In the U.S., traffic deaths and injuries have plateaued, with a slight decrease of 1 percent from 2016 to 2017, with an estimated 40,100 people killed and 4.57 million seriously injured on the roads, according to data released last week by the National Safety Council. The council gets preliminary numbers from all 50 states ahead of the official count that will be released in December by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But a plateau is nothing to be happy about -- it's just a leveling off of the steepest two-year increase in over 50 years, according to the council. Deaths have exceeded 40,000 for two years in a row.
Illinois has followed the national trend -- the numbers remained largely unchanged from 2016 to 2017, but deaths last year were six percent higher than they were in 2015, the National Safety Council said.
In Chicago, deaths for motor vehicle drivers and passengers rose to 80 last year from 63 in 2016; pedestrian deaths rose to 46 from 44; and bicycle fatalities involving motor vehicles rose from 6 to 7. Pedestrian and bike deaths were both above the 2011-15 average of 38.2 and 6.2, respectively.
There has also been a large increase nationally in pedestrian deaths -- up 9 percent in 2016 from 2015, along with an increase in fatalities for other vulnerable road users such as cyclists and motorcycle riders, Kolosh said. Pedestrian, bike and motorcycle numbers were not yet available nationally for 2017.
Rebekah Scheinfeld, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, said while cellphone use by walkers may be a factor in some fatal crashes, the bigger issue is driver behavior.
A pedestrian "using their cellphone does not pose the same risk as someone driving and looking at their cellphone," Scheinfeld said.
Mike Amsden, an assistant director of planning with the department, noted that most pedestrian deaths happen when the pedestrian is doing something legal, like crossing the street. Eighteen of last year's pedestrian deaths were hit-and-runs.
Patrick Salvi, a lawyer whose firm, Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard specializes in traffic-related deaths and injuries, said he often sees cases where pedestrians were not obeying the rules of the road.
"They've got to stay visible, avoid distractions and avoid using alcohol," Salvi said.
Knowing the risk of using technology like mobile phones and GPS does not keep drivers from doing it, according to a recent survey of more than 1,000 U.S. drivers by Esurance Insurance Services. While 91 percent of surveyed drivers believe that texting while driving is distracting, more than half admit to doing it anyway, because they're busy or bored.
Three out of 10 of those surveyed know someone who has experienced a distracted driving crash or close call, and 1 out of 10 have experienced a crash or close call personally, the survey found.
Kolosh said the distracted driving trend seems to be "evolving" with more advanced technology, but that does not mean things are getting better. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies see a decrease in the percentage of drivers observed using their cellphones, Kolosh said.
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However, hands-free technology has been found to be just as distracting and "cognitively taxing" as using your hands to operate a phone, Kolosh said.
"There is no safe way to interact and do multitasking behind the wheel," Kolosh said.
Regarding alcohol use, Kolosh said the U.S. is "out of line" with many other developed countries in its driving-under-the influence laws. The U.S., Canada and Great Britain all use the .08 alcohol standard while most other countries charge drivers if they are caught with blood alcohol levels of .05 or less.
"Research shows there's really no safe level of alcohol in your system while you're driving," Kolosh said.
In the 1990s, states started increasing highway speed limits, and some western states now allow speeds of 80 mph. "While you may save some time with higher speed limits, you're paying for those few minutes with lives lost," Kolosh said.
Vision Zero and crashes
The city put forward a "Vision Zero" plan last June to eliminate traffic deaths and serious crashes. Under the plan, the city said it is pushing for more safety education, intersection changes like curb "bump-outs" to shorten walking distances across streets, and encouraging policies and technologies that make for safer vehicles and professional drivers.
The city said it is also focusing efforts on high-crash areas, which tend to be in low- to moderate-income communities, including Austin on the West Side, Belmont-Cragin on the Northwest Side and Englewood on the South Side.
Vision Zero programs are being tried in other cities around the world, including New York, which began its program in 2014 and has seen a 45 percent decrease in pedestrian deaths, according to the city's website.
So far, Chicago Vision Zero representatives have reached out to almost 8,000 residents on the West Side about ways to make the streets safer, according to Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner of Chicago's transportation department.
Kyle Whitehead, government relations director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said he did not see the increase in fatalities as showing that Vision Zero is not working -- it just started.
But Whitehead said the death numbers are evidence that more needs to be done at a city, state and national level to reduce dangerous travel behavior, like speeding.
"All of these crashes are preventable," Whitehead said.
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