The number of fatal car crashes on Vermont’s roads is up substantially.
“We are up significantly from last year, more than double,” Mandy White, spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said last week.
Despite there theoretically being fewer drivers on the road because of the ongoing pandemic, the number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes this year has already surpassed last year’s total.
Through last Wednesday, Sept. 17, 51 people had died in a total of 47 crashes. Two more fatal crashes in the six days since means the number of people killed now stands at 53. For comparison, 47 people died in crashes in 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 ATV and snowmobiles, and those involving pedestrians or bicyclists. Lamoille County this year has seen both. A woman died while walking in Morristown after being hit by a car this summer, and a man died after an ATV accident earlier this month.
That’s the second fatal ATV crash this year, White said, and the fourth pedestrian killed.
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 leading to so many fatalities in crashes this year?
It looks like about half of those who died this year weren’t wearing seatbelts, White said, noting that data is still being compiled.
Speeding is also typical in many fatal crashes and about 40 percent 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,” of a majority of crashes, Marcoux said, but drivers also need to be driving at appropriate speeds.
Phone-related fines have grown in recent years, but Det. Sgt. Fred Whitcomb of Stowe Police doesn’t think that’s helping to get a handle on the situation.
Police can write tickets for using electronic devices while driving and run campaigns to promote undistracted 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 of any county where 10 incidents led to 12 deaths.
Seven crashes in Windsor County have led to seven deaths and six crashes in Washington County have led to six deaths.
There have been five fatal crashes and five deaths in Orleans County and four fatal crashes in Addison, Caledonia and Rutland counties, with four fatalities in Rutland and five each in Addison and Caledonia.
Franklin County has had three fatal crashes and three deaths while Lamoille County has been the site of the two deaths in two fatal crashes already mentioned.
The final three fatalities, outside the most recent over the weekend, occurred in Bennington, Orange and Windham counties.
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 it’s actually only slightly more than 2017 and 2018 figures.
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 year with the most fatal crashes in the last decade was 2012, when there were 77.
Perhaps surprisingly, given winter roads, it appears the warmer months can be a more dangerous.
More than half of this year’s fatalities happened in June, July and August; there were 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 back 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 fatality in a 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 with serious injuries resulting; so far in 2020 the department has responded to nine.
This is a bit lower in comparison to the past two years, in which 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 those first icy or 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 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 the department has responded to looks to be about on par with previous years though, according to Sergeant Chris Watson. Deputies responded to 34 crashes that involved some type of injuries in both 2017 and 2018, Watson said. In 2019, that figure was 28, and so far this year there have been 18 crashes that saw at least one person injured.
In terms of crashes with at least 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 number being down to how few cars were on the road in March, April and May, when COVID-19 and Vermont’s measures to combat it kept most people isolated.
“There was not a lot of traffic on the road,” Watson said. And, like other departments, he expects deputies will be responding to more in the coming months.