Taskforce seeks to prevent fatal crashes

Iowa State Patrol trooper Jave Colburn’s squad car was damaged while providing assistance during a Feb. 4 pileup on I-80. The car was on display at the state Capitol June 8 for the launch of Drive Safe Iowa, a safe driving program by the Iowa Traffic Fatality Reduction Task Force.

REGIONAL—Extra law enforcement was out last week in a statewide effort to reduce traffic fatalities due to distracted, impaired or unsafe driving practices.

The special enforcement wave from June 9-12 was part of an effort by the recently formed Iowa Traffic Fatality Reduction Task Force to save lives on Iowa’s roads.

The task force held a news conference Tuesday at the State Capitol West mall in Des Moines where leaders of the task force spoke on the alarming upward trend in crashes and dangerous driving Iowa State Patrol has witnessed.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve witnessed some of the most dangerous driving we’ve seen,” said Nathan Fulk, an Iowa State Patrol colonel. “Excessive speed and dangerous driving has peaked during 2021. Speeds over 100 are still up 32 percent. What’s most alarming to us is the upward tick and trend in traffic fatalities.”

As of Thursday, there have been 121 crash-related deaths in the state, almost a 25 percent increase from last year.

The 2020 fatality count was 338, with 336 fatalities in 2019, 319 in 2018, 331 in 2017 and 402 in 2016.

Fulk said law enforcement officers are seeing some of the highest speeds and most impaired drivers in years. These are two of the biggest contributors to traffic fatalities.

“We’re feeling the impact of poor driving behaviors. Speed and distracted driving contributed to a pileup on I-80 on February 4 where we nearly lost law enforcement officers,” Fulk said.

Iowa Department of Transportation Director Scott Marler said the uptick in fatalities and dangerous driving continued through 2020, despite a nearly 20 percent reduction of traffic volumes in the state.

“We expected at first that might equate to fewer fatalities, but in fact we had a slightly higher number of fatalities than we did the year prior. During that time we saw a lot of speeding. Nearly 1,500 citations were written for speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour,” Marler said.

The task force has launched Drive Safe Iowa: The Power Is In Your Hands, a safe driving campaign aimed at educating drivers about the risks of the four most dangerous driving behaviors: speeding, impaired or distracted driving and not buckling up.

The goal of Drive Safe Iowa is to get below 300 traffic fatalities in Iowa for the year. The last time Iowa had less than 300 traffic fatalities in a year was in 1925.

The task force, which was formed in January, is a multifaceted partnership of several state agencies. It is led by the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, the Iowa Department of Transportation, the Iowa State Patrol, Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association and Iowa State Police Association.

Other key partners include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Iowa State University and AAA of Iowa/Minnesota.

Efforts by these groups will focus on education, enforcement and legislative initiatives to combat dangerous driving throughout the year.

In top of occasional special enforcement periods, the Traffic Fatality Reduction task force will be pushing to pass laws to further road safety.

Texting while driving is illegal in Iowa, but the task force would like to see a hands-free law passed to help with enforcement and encourage more drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

Requiring all passengers to buckle up could also be a future initiative. For 35 years, Iowa law has required drivers to wear seat belts, but that same requirement has not been extended to passengers despite the safety risks of being unbuckled in the event of an accident.

In 2020, 125 of the 338 people killed in crashes in Iowa were unbuckled or law enforcement was unable to determine seat belt use.

“When we look at the reduction of traffic fatalities overall, Iowa has seen some success, we’ve plateaued recently. A lot of the success Iowa has seen has been because of positive legislation,” said Patrick Hoyes, chair of the task force and Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau Chief.