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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Police: Patrols, enforcement help reduce number of fatal crashes in NH

More than 100 people died on New Hampshire roads last year in 98 fatal crashes, a jump from 84 crashes that killed 90 people the previous year, according to data provided by the state Department of Safety.

For all of the attention distracted driving gets, speed, alcohol and drugs – or some combination thereof – were to blame for the highest percentage of the 105 deaths on New Hampshire roads last year. ...

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More than 100 people died on New Hampshire roads last year in 98 fatal crashes, a jump from 84 crashes that killed 90 people the previous year, according to data provided by the state Department of Safety.

For all of the attention distracted driving gets, speed, alcohol and drugs – or some combination thereof – were to blame for the highest percentage of the 105 deaths on New Hampshire roads last year.

Twenty-one of the deaths were caused by alcohol, alcohol and drugs or alcohol and speed, according to data provided by the state police.

Crossing the center line and failing to yield were the next leading causes in the deadly crashes, blamed for 14 and seven of the deaths respectively.

Distraction or inattention were directly blamed for just seven of the deaths, although it’s unclear how many failures to yield or crossing the center line crashes were because of inattention.

Another 24 of the deaths came during crashes for which police haven’t yet determined a cause, according to the data.

None of those observations would have been possible without a fight for the basic data from the 98 fatal crashes in the state last year. While police departments throughout the state, including state police, routinely release the names and ages of fatal crash victims, as well as the cars involved and description of the accident, the Department of Safety initially refused to release the same information in an aggregated form.

Getting the data

After police and safety officials called a press conference at the end of August after an alarming spate of 19 fatal crashes that left 22 people dead, 16 more than the same month in 2011, The Telegraph asked to review the same information police were studying to come up with ways to prevent more deadly crashes. The paper asked for the basics: victims’ names and ages, as well as where and when the crashes occurred.

Even though identical information is released piecemeal during the year, New Hampshire State Police officials declined to release it in bulk, citing the state’s Driver Privacy Act, RSA 260:14, which exempts driving records from public inspection.

In other words, all of that information is considered public for individual crashes, but the database containing the same information about the accidents was considered secret.

However, the law also says the Department of Safety can use its own discretion to release “any person’s name, age or motor vehicle offenses.”

Eventually, The Telegraph was given information detailing all of the fatal crashes from 2012, including road conditions, the time of the crash, victims’ names, ages, whether they were wearing a seat belt or helmet, the vehicles they were in and a final cause of the crash, if one was determined.

Some of the information was redacted. Assistant Commissioner of Safety Earl Sweeney said juveniles’ information was blacked out.

“Certainly, we want to give you everything we can,” he said.

All of the data police eventually provided is available at nashuatelegraph.
com
.

Progress since August

Sgt. Matt Shapiro, coordinator of the state’s Special Services Highway Safety Unit, said since the press conference last August, he used the same data to brainstorm ways to reduce fatal crashes across the state. He said he has gleaned from available data that most crashes happen during morning and afternoon commuting hours.

“It appears high-visibility patrol and enforcement makes a difference,” he said. “It reminds drivers on a specific level … to drive more carefully.”

He added that, in general, impaired driving, speeding and distracted driving, including the use of a cellphone, led to gruesome and deadly crashes.

Even though the number of fatalities spiked in 2012, with 98 deadly crashes resulting in 105 deaths, the average for the last five years shows an overall “downward trend,” Shapiro said. In 2011, there were 84 crashes, and in 2010, there were 120 crashes.

Still, the department upped its patrols between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve last year, which Shapiro said made a large impact in the reduction of those crashes. According to provided data, there were 15 fatal crashes in the final two months of the year. In December 2011 alone, there were 12 fatal crashes.

“There was a period where we did crash-reduction patrols targeting the period after Memorial Day until about the middle of June (2012),” Shapiro said. “And in doing that, in 2011, there were eight fatals in that period, but in 2012, there were two. So that’s an indication that maybe crash-reduction patrols, high-visibility patrols and enforcement are effective.”

Increased enforcement

Shapiro said he has also worked to implement extra patrols and sobriety checkpoints across the state, along with speed enforcement patrols and drug recognition expert (DRE) units.

Effective Jan. 1, driving while intoxicated laws changed in New Hampshire to also list prescription drugs, synthetic marijuana and “bath salts,” as well as over-the-counter medications as qualifying for inhibiting substances that may be prosecuted for impaired driving. Shapiro said DRE units are trained especially to detect operators driving under the influence of those substances during a traffic stop, which he said leads to safer roads.

There were 23 fatal crashes caused by impaired driving, according to 2012 data, primarily caused by alcohol, drugs or a combination of the two. Several other cases, stretching as far back as June, were listed in the official database as “pending.”

“On individual cases, it’s difficult because you’re talking about a loss to a family. And that’s very personal,” Shapiro said. “… But when we look at trends, you see that basically the trend remains consistent over time. Impaired driving is by far and away the number one cause of fatal crashes.”

Samantha Allen can be reached at 594-6426 or sallen@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Allen on Twitter (@Telegraph_SamA).