No one is ever prepared to say a final goodbye. There’s a unique sting that accompanies deaths that were seemingly avoidable and unnecessary. Last year in Kentucky, 835 people died in crashes. More than half were not buckled up, and 20 percent died with impairment as a factor. For the families, co-workers and communities left behind, each number represents an irreplaceable person whose life was snuffed out too early. These are grim, and all too common realities in Kentucky.
It’s tempting to downplay 835 deaths compared to 4.4 million residents, but the fact is 2016 was among the deadliest years for traffic deaths in the state and nation. Even more startling, nearly 4,000 people have died on Kentucky roads since 2012. Unless we make changes, those numbers will climb.
Deadly crashes don’t just happen. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver behavior is a factor in 90 percent of road fatalities. We all know the culprits—speeding, unbuckled drivers and passengers, and driving distracted, drowsy, drunk or drugged. Those “4Ds” can transform vehicles and cell phones into deadly weapons. With more vehicles on the road, we’re all at greater risk of being involved in a crash.
It’s a common misconception that teenager drivers are the primary victims of fatal crashes. In fact, young drivers had the lowest fatality rate in 2016, representing less than 6 percent of highway deaths. The stats show professionals and older drivers, ages 25-64, make up 60 percent of those who have families that have had to say the ultimate goodbye.
While crashes take an emotional toll on those left grieving the lives lost, we can’t ignore the collateral costs they impose on communities.
When people die in crashes, there’s a far-reaching financial impact, too. A crash-related death or life-altering injury creates financial burdens for families and communities from lost wages, property damage, hospitalizations, continuing care and cost of emergency response. Commerce is affected when major routes are closed, causing delivery delays and decreased productivity. In crash-prone metropolitan areas, rising insurance rates reflect the uptick in this deadly trend.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Every driver can take simple steps to reverse this trend. Buckle up for every trip, every time. It’s the number one way to survive and to go home to loved ones after a crash. Put the cell phone down. Distracted drivers accounted for two-thirds of crashes in 2016. Whatever it is, it can wait. Don’t drink and drive. Before you pick up a drink, pick up the phone and plan a ride home. It’s up to each individual make the right choices. Choose well and avoid saying the last goodbye.
Dr. Noelle Hunter, Ph.D, is the executive director of the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety.