“These are birthdays and holidays, other major events in life that will not be experienced, not only by them having lost their life, but by their family members and their friends and their colleagues that are missing them forever,” said Lewis Leff, Austin’s transportation safety officer, during the city’s Oct. 7 mobility committee meeting.
The number of deaths reflects national trends that have seen traffic fatalities increase during the pandemic. With fewer cars on the road, drivers had greater opportunity to speed, Leff said.
“The bottom line is that our travel and crashes are down, and speed and severity started increasing significantly. We're seeing that play out with fatality numbers,” Leff said.
Austin’s Vision Zero goal aims to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Leff said the city is seeing some positive signs in progressing toward that goal because serious injuries have dropped this year.
Leff also said that around two-thirds of the traffic fatalities happen on roads managed by the Texas Department of Transportation in response to a question from District 10 Council Member Alison Alter. However, he added that those roads tend to be larger and accommodate high-speed traffic.
“There's a pretty good, rational explanation for that: The larger the roadways are, the higher speeds they are, the less traffic control that's on there, you're going to see more incidents like that because speed is the primary factor,” Leff said. “TxDOT’s on-system roadways are typically frontage roads, typically the freeways, and that's what we're seeing play out in the severity of crashes that happened.”
TxDOT manages some of Austin’s busiest roads, including I-35, Hwy. 290 and Loop 360.
In addition to speed, documents from the transportation department show trends around time of day. In 2021, the most deaths thus far have happened at 1 a.m. on Saturday and between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Sunday. The documents also noted that Austin is on pace to have fewer traffic deaths and serious deaths per capita than Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth but more than San Antonio.
Leff said the city has a mix of short- and long-term remedies for the increased severity of traffic crashes, including increased enforcement of speeding and impaired driving, state-level changes that would allow automated enforcement of red light running and the implementation of large transportation projects such as Project Connect.