The number of motorists who died in crashes on Arkansas roads in the second three months of this year dropped 20% from the toll in the same quarter in 2021, state data shows, marking a significant departure from a two-year surge in fatal wrecks, although authorities are still concerned after an expected spike in August claimed more lives than it had in that month over the past decade.
From April to June, 155 people died in wrecks on Arkansas roads, statistics from Arkansas State Police show, down from 196 in that same time period last year, which was itself an increase from the 181 deaths in the second three months of 2020.
The state's trend of declining fatalities is in line with, and actually more dramatic than, the national average, data shows.
The 5% decrease in fatalities nationwide from April to June of 2021 compared with the same quarter this year was the first decrease in America's roadway deaths since summer 2020, estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show.
Last year was the deadliest in 16 years for American drivers, with nearly 43,000 people dying in wrecks, according to federal highway safety data. That marked a 10.5% increase in deaths compared with 2020 and was the highest spike in annual deaths since the agency started tracking fatality data back in 1975.
Explanations for the increase in deaths over the past two years have varied, but it's generally thought that drivers became accustomed to less-crowded roads during the early years of the covid-19 pandemic which allowed them to drive faster and less carefully. As the impact of the virus waned, drivers have struggled to acclimate to the return of traffic. State and national authorities have leaned on this explanation.
For many months now, the overall number of crashes has dropped even as deaths have surged nationwide, suggesting that reckless driving could now be on the decline as offices reopen and more cars return to the road, Michael Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, told the Associated Press.
"What it may be is that we're seeing an easing of some of the issues that were caused by the pandemic -- speeding, open roads, risky driving issues," Brooks said. "Traffic is returning to normal, the roads aren't as empty as they were."
"The fact is the fatality rate is still very, very high," Brooks said. "There is a lot that remains to be done."
In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled its National Roadway Safety Strategy, which called for federal and state officials to encourage safe driving behavior and discourage speeding while also investing in safer roadway and vehicle design as well as medical care for Americans injured in wrecks.
"The status quo is unacceptable, and it is preventable," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter introducing the plan. "We know it's preventable because bold cities in the United States, and countries abroad, have achieved tremendous reductions in roadway deaths. We cannot accept such terrible losses here."
In Arkansas, however, the number of traffic deaths have trended downward since the start of this year, with a 6% decrease in the first quarter compared with the first quarter of 2021. Taken together, traffic deaths have dropped 15% in the first half of 2022 compared with the first six months of last year.
Despite the positive outlook, authorities were hesitant to declare an end to the trend of rising traffic deaths.
Last month, 81 people died in crashes on Arkansas roads, which marked the deadliest August for motorists in 10 years, Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said.
For comparison, 57 people died in crashes in August 2021 and 58 in August 2020, data showed.
And July, when 51 deaths were reported, was up from the July 2021 toll of 46, but still lower than the 72 deaths reported in July 2020 just a few months after the pandemic began. July 2020 was also the same month that an act passed by the Arkansas Legislature in 2019 increased speed limits to 75 mph on rural interstates and 65 mph on urban highways.
Authorities always anticipate an increase in deaths as a result of heightened summer travel, but any explanation as to why August was so deadly is guesswork at this point, Sadler said.
The numbers reported from July and August are still preliminary and subject to change as reports of fatal crashes from local law enforcement trickled in to state authorities, Sadler said.
With September not yet over, Sadler did not want to speculate on what the third quarter's overall death toll would be.
"I don't want to paint a rosy picture when it may not prove to be so, but let's knock on wood," Sadler said.
However, a tally of the preliminary fatality reports posted on the Department of Public Safety's website as of Sept. 21 showed 29 deaths, ensuring that the decrease in deaths from the third quarter of 2021 to that period this year would be less dramatic than the second-quarter dip.
These reports are an imprecise measure and may change, but they give a window into the month's roadway deaths.
The majority of these fatal wrecks, Sadler said, are caused by speeding, following another vehicle too closely, or a combination of the two.
"When you put those two together, following close and speed, it's a deadly combination," Sadler said.
State police are still particularly concerned about the heightened number of deadly wrecks, mainly due to high speeds, happening on two-lane highways in rural areas, Sadler said. These roads have proved to be as dangerous or more dangerous since 2020 than larger highways, where multivehicle and multifatality crashes are more common, he said.
Troopers across the state have made a concerted effort to increase patrols, Sadler said, in an effort to encourage safer driving and prevent reckless driving and speeding that can lead to wrecks.
"It has been a high priority to get that fatality number down, and the only way we know to do that is to increase patrols," Sadler said.