Failure to use seat belts, impaired or aggressive drivers and distractions all play a part in the total fatal accident numbers each year. More than 100 people have died on Delaware roads every year since 1964. Over the past two decades the annual average is 125 killed.

More than 100 people have died on Delaware roadways every year since 1964 and 2016 was no exception.

“We would love to get to zero,” said Jana Simpler, director of the state Office of Highway Safety. “And we are hopeful we will get there some day. But we are making some headway.”

Preliminary numbers from 2016 indicate there were 117 fatal crashes with 120 fatalities, according to Simpler. In 2015, 129 fatal crashes claimed 133 lives. The numbers, Simpler said, could still change as investigations into the causes are completed.

“An average year for us would be 110 to 115,” Simpler said. “We obviously have work to do.”

The OHS partners with police agencies on educational and enforcement programs, such as the annual Click-It-Or-Ticket seat belt campaign, pedestrian and bicycle safety and motorcycle awareness.

Sgt. Richard Bratz, Public Information Director for the Delaware State Police, said the partnership makes sense.

“Whether it is DUI, pedestrian safety, occupant safety, we do all those with the goal of just making everybody safer,” he said.

Despite the number of deaths, Delaware motorists still did better than drivers nationally. A report out this month from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted that driving-related deaths were up in 2016 over the first three quarters of 2015. The 27,875 deaths nationwide represented an 8 percent increase over the same period in 2015.

“The third quarter of 2016 represents the eighth consecutive quarter with increases in fatalities as compared to the corresponding quarters in the previous years,” the reported noted. The NHTSA’s final 2016 numbers won’t be available until March.

Scarce data

Data on fatal accidents is difficult to come by. The state’s Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Delaware State Police, acknowledged receipt of a Nov. 28 Freedom of Information Act request from Gatehouse Media Delaware, but did not respond to the request and ignored several follow-up emails seeking information on the status of the request.

The FOIA request asked for information that is typically included in state police accident reports and compiled in an annual traffic statistical report from the state police Information and Analysis Center. The 2015 report is available online.

The Delaware Department of Transportation received the same Nov. 28 FOIA request and responded with an array of excuses for denying the information. It did, however, note that “the Department of Homeland Security is the sole owner of the crash data, and you may want to contact them with your request.”

Specifically, the request asked for:

1. The date and time of the accident;

2. The location, including road number and cross street;

3. The number of victims, their sex and age;

4. Whether they were the driver or passenger;

5. Whether they were properly restrained; and

6. Any determinations on contributing factors (i.e. road conditions, drunk or impaired driving, distracted driving, etc.).

After being denied the information, Gatehouse Media Delaware compiled statistics from 101 fatal accidents by searching through state police press releases and other sources in an attempt to see how the numbers compared to recent years.

The Information and Analysis Center report on 2015 accident data noted that more than 100 people had been killed on Delaware roads in every year since 1996, the earliest year included in the report.

Pedestrian deaths

Simpler said preliminary data show Delaware had 27 pedestrian-related fatalities in 2016, down from 36 in 2015.

While that represents a big decrease, she said, “it still contributes to far too many of our overall fatalities.”

Low light hours of dusk and dawn, pedestrians in dark clothes and people not using crosswalks are among the contributing factors in many pedestrian deaths, she said.

“If we can get more people to use crosswalks, or just to be more vigilant, we could reduce that,” she said.

After a deadly week in November in which four pedestrians were killed in five days, the state police issued a press release reminding people to use caution when attempting to cross roads, especially at night.

Simpler said OHS also focuses on pedestrian safety. Bus shelter wraps, posters inside of DART vehicles and signs on the back of lifeguard stands at the shore are among the 2017 initiatives planned to educate people about pedestrian safety.

“We also run an enforcement campaign at the same time that we run an education campaign,” she said.

That involves police agencies distributing wristbands, lit bands for shoes and reflective items to pedestrians.

Seat belt use

Of the 101 fatal accident reports that Gatehouse Media Delaware compiled from 2016, 42 occurred in Sussex County, 30 in New Castle and 29 in Kent. Among those, SR 1 saw the mostly deadly accidents with 11, followed by nine on US 13 and eight on I-95.

While only a few of the reports were specific about seat belt use, 23 noted the person killed was not properly restrained. In 2015, according to the state police statistical report, 33 of 74 vehicle occupants involved in fatal crashes were using restraints. The same report noted that over the previous decade, about 50 percent of the vehicle occupants killed in traffic crashes were properly restrained.

While only 45 percent of those killed in 2015 were using seat belts, the same report notes that 88 percent of the people in vehicle accidents statewide used seat belts.

“In 2015, the occurrence of a serious injury was reduced by 11 percent when the person was wearing an occupant restraint,” the report notes.

Simpler said seat belt use among Delaware drivers in 2016 was 91 percent, but of the 76 total motor vehicle occupants killed, 38 percent were not wearing seat belts.

“The reason the percentage is so high is you usually have the trifecta of risk factors in fatal crashes of speed, unbelted and it could be an impaired driving issue,” she said. “The riskiest drivers tend to be the ones that aren’t belted.”

The annual Click-It-Or-Ticket seat belt enforcement campaign aims to educate drivers about the importance of using seat belts.

Distracted driving

Of the 101 fatal crashes reviewed, 37 involved single-vehicle crashes where the driver lost control and left the roadway. Another nine occurred when a driver crossed the center line and hit an oncoming vehicle.

While the 2015 traffic report noted driver inattention, distraction or fatigue as a contributing factor in five fatal accidents that year, Simpler said getting hard data on whether a driver was distracted is difficult.

“Generally people are not going to admit to doing it for fear of getting a ticket,” she said. “But intuitively we know it is occurring because we are all drivers and we see people with cell phones, or we see them texting. We know that it is occurring and that it is contributing to crashes.”

Last August, Gov. Jack Markell signed House Bill 302, which doubled the fines for drivers caught using a handheld device while driving. The civil penalty for a first offense increased from $50 to $100, and for subsequent offenses penalties range from $200 to $300. Markell signed the bill at the headquarters of AAA Mid-Atlantic in Wilmington. Ken Grant, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said distracted driving ranks as one of the traffic safety issues at the forefront of many drivers’ thinking.

“Distracted driving is a deadly behavior,” he said. “While fines and enforcement certainly play an important role in traffic safety, it is just as important that drivers are aware of the dangers associated with distracted driving and choose to remain focused while behind the wheel.”

Simpler said education and enforcement centered on distracted driving are among the 35 to 40 educational programs the Office of Highway Safety does each year. This year, the agency is adding drugged driving.

“We are expanding our impaired driving messaging beyond alcohol,” she said.

Child safety seat education and programs aimed at teen drivers are also in the mix again this year. The decrease in fatalities in 2016 is an indication that people might be getting the message. To date, 2017 has seen four fatalities – three pedestrians and a single-vehicle crash.

“One death is always too many,” she said. “But we are happy that we are seeing progress.”