Fatalities on Austin roads have increased since COVID, city says

Data shared by the City of Austin’s Transportation Department shows that traffic fatalities are up in the Austin area, reflecting a statewide and nationwide trend.

Through early October, there have been more than 90 traffic fatalities in Austin. That number is about a 30% increase from the same period in 2020 and a 37% increase from the same period in 2019.

However, it cannot necessarily be attributed to an increase in traffic as more businesses open up and people head back to the office. The data also shows that current traffic numbers haven’t quite hit pre-pandemic levels.

"The reality is it’s been a significant shift in the past couple of years or past 18 months," said Lewis Leff, a transportation safety officer for the City of Austin. "That leads us to believe it’s really about the driver behaviors more than anything else that’s changed."

The changes in driver behaviors may have been shaped by the pandemic. Leff noted two main contributors to the increase in fatalities - speed and impaired drivers.

"Driver speeds have changed as the congestion has opened up space on the roadways, and I think some people are taking advantage of that," said Leff. "Research is also showing the mental health impacts of the pandemic have really worn on people and we’ve seen an increase in drug and alcohol use, and that’s probably playing out on our roadways as well."

When it comes to statewide trends, according to data from TxDOT, Texas is about to hit 21 years since its last deathless day on Texas roads.

"If you were born on November 8, 2000, you’re about to turn 21 and every single day of your life at least one person has died on a Texas road," said Bradley Wheelis, a spokesperson for TxDOT.

TxDOT launched the #EndTheStreakTX campaign to raise awareness and get more Texans involved in the effort to bring those numbers down.

The City of Austin has its own safety campaign - Vision Zero - with the goal of getting to zero traffic fatalities and injuries. Part of that program has involved pinpointing high-injury roadways and intersections and making safety improvements.

"Engineering treatments take time and a significant amount of money," said Leff. "Unfortunately, we’re seeing these severe crashes ramp up a lot faster than we’re able to address the 300-plus miles of our city."

TxDOT is also tackling its own safety improvements. For example, on highways across the region crews have installed steel cable barriers to keep drivers from crossing a median into oncoming traffic.

"We’re taking an engineering approach to this and then we need the second component," said Wheelis. "That's for the folks that are driving out on our roadways to watch their speed, avoid distractions, buckle up and don't drink and drive."

To see the latest crash data broken down into demographics, time of day and more, click here.

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