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WA Traffic Safety Commission unveils new messaging amid increase in fatal crashes

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(The Center Square) – The Washington Traffic Safety Commission is changing its messaging regarding its goal of reducing fatal and serious injury automobile crashes.

The change comes after Washington state in 2023 recorded the highest number of traffic deaths in 33 years.

WTSC Director Shelly Baldwin shared that data and the new strategy during the commission’s marathon virtual meeting on Wednesday.

“This number will change but the actual today count is 810 fatalities for 2023, which is incredibly alarming and disheartening,” Baldwin said. “These are families that have lost people they love. I grieve when I see these numbers.”

A variety of factors contribute to fatal motor vehicle accidents, including impaired driving, which is responsible for 60% of such wrecks.

“Speeding is involved in 32%,” Baldwin continued. “Unrestrained occupants [have] also increased, and that’s disturbing because our overall seatbelt usage has increased.”

In the age of cellphones, the loss of concentration by drivers is also a factor.

“Distracted driving is starting to pick up again,” Baldwin noted.

Max Roberts, senior research associate with WTSC, told the commission that pedestrian fatalities are also up.

“In 2023, we had 157 lives lost among our pedestrians on Washington roads, and this is something we’ve never seen before,” he said.

Roberts shared results of a recent survey of drivers responding to questions such as how dangerous do you think it is to drive impaired, and how often do you ask someone in your car to put a seatbelt on?

“It was interesting to see that although most Washingtonians responded to say they practice safe behaviors, they perceive that people around them do not,” he observed.

The commission’s new approach, according to Baldwin, redirects efforts away from negative driving behavior messaging to promoting positive behaviors.

“We’re incorporating new thinking around traffic safety,” Baldwin said. This changes how we message from ‘don’t do this and don’t do that’ to ‘thanks for what you’re doing’ and recognizing that most drivers are doing really well out there.”

The new approach comes nearly 25 years after WTSC unveiled its “Target Zero” plan and its goal of having zero traffic deaths or serious injuries by 2030 and may be a de facto acknowledgment that that goal is not realistic.

The new five-year plan includes an equity component, Baldwin said.

“We’ve looked at a lot of data, and we can see areas in the state that have high social vulnerability indexes and high crash rates,” she explained. “We’re treating those areas to some extra attention and programming.”

The new campaign will be rolled out in the weeks and months to come and includes public events to solicit feedback before a final plan is presented to Gov. Jay Inslee this fall.