This article by Andrew Martin was first published Sept. 24 in the News & Citizen of Morrisville.
The number of fatal car crashes on Vermont’s roads has risen substantially this year.
“We are up significantly from last year, more than double,” said Mandy White, spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Though theoretically fewer drivers are on the road because of the pandemic, the number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes this year has already surpassed last year’s total.
Through Sept. 23, 53 people had died in 49 crashes. For comparison, 47 people died in crashes in all of 2019.
By mid-September of last year, there had been only 21 fatalities in 20 crashes, White said.
The state tracks the “typical” crash, in which one vehicle hits another, or an object, and other crashes that take place on public highways. That could include ATVs and snowmobiles, pedestrians or bicyclists. Lamoille County this year has had both. A woman died after being hit by a car while walking in Morristown this summer, and a man died after an ATV accident in September. That’s the second fatal ATV crash this year, White said, and the fourth pedestrian death.
Motorcycle crashes also seem to be on the rise, and one cyclist, a young girl in Jericho, was killed after she was hit by a car in August.
So just what is driving these fatalities? About half of those who died this year weren’t wearing seat belts, White said, though the numbers are still being compiled.
Speeding is also typical in many fatal crashes, and about 40% of all fatal crashes involve an impaired driver.
“That’s trending normal from previous years,” White said. The state tracks instances of distracted drivers, too, but that can be hard to prove, so the numbers aren’t very accurate.
However, police say it is a significant factor.
“Distracted driving is a component in almost all our accidents,” said Chris Watson, a staff sergeant with the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department. Typically, those distractions come in the form of a cellphone or other in-car technology.
“A lot of ours aren’t because of speed,” Morristown desk officer Andrew Glover said. “People aren’t paying attention. Distracted driving is the most common reason people get into accidents.”
Cpl. Jon Marcoux of the Shelburne Police Department said it can be difficult to tell if drivers are going too fast or were distracted, but the two often go hand-in-hand.
“Distracted driving is a primary cause” in a majority of crashes, Marcoux said, but speeding’s a big factor, too.
Phone-related fines have grown in recent years, but Detective Sgt. Fred Whitcomb of the Stowe police doesn’t think that’s deterring the cellphone problem at all.
Police can write tickets for illegally using handheld phones while driving and run campaigns on the dangers of distracted driving “until we’re blue in the face, but people just aren’t willing to put down those cellphones,” Whitcomb said.
By the numbers
This year there has been at least one fatal crash in 12 of Vermont’s 14 counties. Chittenden County had the most; 10 incidents led to 12 deaths.
Seven crashes in Windsor County caused seven deaths and six crashes in Washington County caused six deaths.
Five crashes caused five deaths in Orleans County; four fatal crashes were reported in Addison, Caledonia and Rutland counties, with four deaths in Rutland County and five each in Addison and Caledonia.
Franklin County has had three fatal crashes and three deaths; Lamoille County had two deaths in two fatal crashes already mentioned.
Bennington, Orange and Windham counties each had one fatality.
Essex and Grand Isle counties are the only ones unscathed so far.
The volume of fatal crashes through nine-and-a-half months is much higher than last year, but only slightly above the death toll in 2017 and 2018.
There were 47 fatalities due to motor vehicle crashes by mid-September both years.
In 2017, by year’s end, 70 people had died in crashes; in 2018, that number was 69. The 47 people who died in all of 2019 is the lowest mark since 44 died in 2014.
The deadliest year in the last decade was 2012, when 77 people died on the highways.
Perhaps surprisingly, given slick winter roads, warmer months seem to be more dangerous.
More than half of this year’s fatalities happened in June, July and August — 11 in June, 15 in July and nine in August.
There were 10 fatalities in the first five months of the year, including three in January.
Police don’t expect the number of crashes — and the number of deaths — to level off now that summer is over and colder weather is returning, though. An uptick in November and December, when snow begins to fly, is typical.
Local departments speak
There hasn’t been a fatal crash in Stowe this year, but there was one in 2019 and two in 2018.
Whitcomb estimates that the department is on pace for its average of serious crashes.
In both 2018 and 2019, the department responded to 14 crashes that caused serious injuries; so far in 2020, the department has responded to nine.
Stowe officers responded to 192 total crashes in 2019 and 206 in 2018. So far in 2020 there have been 103.
“Maybe a tick low,” Whitcomb said. But, like everyone else, he expects officers will be busier in the months to come.
And, he reiterated that icy, snowy roads become even more of a problem when people don’t pay attention to what’s in front of them.
“We’re still seeing a tremendous amount of cellphone use, either texting or talking,” he said.
The Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department hasn’t had any fatal crashes in its coverage area this year, although deputies did assist Vermont State Police in responding to the fatal ATV crash in Eden.
The sheriff’s department last had a fatal crash in its coverage area in 2019; there was also one in 2017 but none in 2018.
The number of serious crashes in 2020 looks about on par with previous years, according to Sgt. Chris Watson. Deputies responded to 34 crashes in which people were injured in both 2017 and 2018, Watson said. In 2019, that figure was 28, and so far this year 18 crashes have caused injuries.
In terms of crashes that caused some type of property damage, the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department numbers are down this year. The department responded to 180 such crashes in 2017, 181 in 2018 and 152 in 2019. This year there have only been 59.
Watson credits that decline to Vermont’s efforts to keep people isolated from Covid-19 in March, April and May.
“There was not a lot of traffic on the road,” Watson said. Like other officers, he expects an increase in accidents in the coming months.