January 3, 2014

Traffic deaths hit low statewide, but rise in Sedgwick County

Traffic deaths statewide last year dipped to their lowest level since record-keeping began in 1947.

Traffic deaths statewide last year dipped to their lowest level since record-keeping began in 1947.

But the number of people who died on roads in Sedgwick County grew last year, a preliminary report from the Kansas Department of Transportation shows.

Kansas reported 345 traffic fatalities last year, compared with 405 in 2012. The previous low was 385 fatalities in 2008. The high occurred in 1969, when 780 people died.

Although KDOT still is analyzing numbers from last year, state safety engineer Steven Buckley said, one trend seems clear: Fatalities are down on state highways, but they are flat, or rising, on locally owned and maintained roads, including in Wichita.

There were 48 traffic deaths last year in Sedgwick County, including those in Wichita, other cities in the county and unincorporated areas, according to the preliminary report. In 2012, there were 39 traffic fatalities in the county.

Butler, Harvey and Sumner counties saw their numbers drop last year.

Lt. Joe Schroeder of the Wichita Police Department said police officers worked 30 fatalities resulting from 27 accidents in 2013.

“That’s the second-highest we’ve had in 10 years,” he said Friday. “The last time we had that many was in 2006, when we had 36 deaths.”

“You can’t really link it to any particular thing,” Schroeder said. “Drivers in Wichita … they’re aggressive. They run stoplights.”

Five of the fatal crashes last year involved drivers who suffered medical conditions behind the wheel, Schroeder said.

Inattention and failing to yield or stop also are major factors, he said.

He recalled an April 9, 2013, accident in which two people died. Authorities have accused the driver of driving while intoxicated and looking at a map on his cellphone, Schroeder said. The driver, a Texas man, faces charges of second-degree murder.

Going into the new year, Schroeder has this advice: “Slow down, don’t run red lights. Be respectful of each other and pay attention. People should dedicate all their time behind the wheel to driving.”

He also encouraged people to wear seat belts and to not drive after drinking.

“You can have coffee,” he said. “I’m fine with that.”

Buckley cited several factors for the decline in traffic deaths statewide: more people wearing seat belts, safer vehicles, good work by law enforcement and emergency responders, and infrastructure improvements.

“I wish we could point to any one single thing, but I really do think it’s a combination of a number of things,” he said. “Every year we see more and more people wearing their seatbelts. And over the past 20 and 30 years, courtesy of the taxpayers, we have invested billions of dollars in the highway system, and that’s made a difference.”

So has vehicle safety, he said.

“As we get more and more older cars off the road and get newer cars with all of the safety features built into them, that makes a big difference,” Buckley said.

Newer vehicles come equipped with airbags, side curtains and anti-lock brakes, among other safety features.

Capt. Annette Haga of the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office said sheriff’s deputies worked 10 fatalities last year, up from nine in 2012.

Haga said high-accident intersections continue to be 47th Street and K-15 and 143rd Street and Kellogg.

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