Distracted driving and pandemic pressures continue Arizona’s upward trend in traffic fatalities.
Traffic fatalities surged to a 15-year high in 2021 as distracted, impaired and high-speed driving coalesced to create dangerous conditions.
Even with fewer cars on the road as more people worked from home during the pandemic, traffic deaths increased, likely because of excessive speeds and reckless driving, says Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “People continue speeding, and I see it everywhere,” Gutier says. “And that’s where my concern is, because I don’t see it declining anywhere.”
Preliminary numbers show 1,120 traffic fatalities in Arizona in 2021, according to the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. That’s higher than the 1,057 lives lost in 2020 and the most since 2006 (1,301) before a series of state public-safety initiatives helped drive fatalities below 900 annually between 2009 and 2015.
A report with finalized numbers for 2021 is expected mid-summer, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, the report for 2020 showed an interesting wrinkle: There were fewer crashes overall, but more deaths from crashes.
It’s not just Arizona. Nationwide, traffic fatalities broke records in 2020 and didn’t slow down in 2021, prompting a recent push by federal transportation officials and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to improve roadway safety. No single reason jumps out for the increased traffic deaths, experts say. Several issues have coincided.
More people are distracted, reckless and driving faster, according to Gutier. Police cited more people for impaired driving, due to both alcohol and drugs. DUI numbers reached their highest levels since 2013, he says. “People are driving very, very silly and fast, not paying attention, distracted… That’s the main issue,” Gutier says. A new report from the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety dinged Arizona for weak laws on seatbelts and teen driving, but the group noted the state’s impaired driving laws met higher bars for safety. Other traffic safety advocacy organizations, like MADD, ranked Arizona’s impaired driving laws highly, too.
The city of Phoenix, which also saw increased traffic deaths in 2021, recently signed on to a national initiative designed to improve road safety. But safety advocates say cities need to consider more drastic measures that could be politically unpopular, like lowering speed limits and introducing more roundabouts to calm traffic.
For his part, Gutier urges drivers to be smarter. They need to take their time, plan their routes and not drive while impaired, tired or stressed. And when they break the law, they should get ticketed or head to court, depending on the offense. “People need to pay for the consequences of driving the way they’re driving,” he says.