Jon Johnson File Photo/Gila Herald: An emergency crew works a fatal crash scene in this file photo. New federal data shows that traffic deaths in Arizona fell sharply in the first quarter of 2022, after several years of steady increases, while the nation as a whole saw a record increase in highway fatalities in the quarter.
By John Brown/Cronkite News
WASHINGTON – While the rest of the nation was posting a record increase in traffic fatalities in the first quarter of 2022, highway deaths in Arizona were falling by nearly a third, according to a recent report.
The report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 190 people died on Arizona roads in the first quarter of this year, a 31.4% drop from the 277 who were killed in the first three months of 2021.
That was the fourth-steepest percentage drop in the nation, trailing only the much-smaller states of Rhode Island, North Dakota, and Montana. Nationwide, highway fatalities rose by 7% over the first quarter of 2021, from 8,935 to an estimated 9,560, as 29 states saw gains in the number of deaths.
The decrease in Arizona followed several years of a steadily climbing highway death toll.
“I welcome any good news regarding our traffic numbers,” said Alberto Gutier, executive director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “I’m very surprised, but very happily surprised.”
Experts said the increase in deaths nationally could be the result of having more people on the roads post-pandemic, combined with higher speeds and more distracted and reckless drivers.
“The trend overall in the country is very concerning, and has been going on for a while,” said Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
“State by state numbers may jump around, but nationally the trend is, unfortunately, an increase and a rather sharp increase,” Rader said.
Gutier agrees that speeding, reckless driving, and impaired driving are among the factors that have driven up deaths in Arizona.
“When you combine all of these factors, it’s a deadly combination,” he said.
But he thinks the return to normal traffic flows might be the reason Arizona numbers have decreased so far: With more people on the road commuting to work and school, he said, drivers may be taking fewer chances.
The first-quarter improvements have continued through 2022, according to the most recent numbers from Gutier’s office. It reported 398 traffic fatalities – including car, pedestrian, and bike deaths – through July, compared to 700 through the same period in 2021.
But with Labor Day travel approaching, AAA expects more people on the road – and more challenges for drivers.
“Be prepared,” said John Treanor, the AAA spokesperson for Western states. “You may not have dealt with high-traffic situations. Your car may not have been on long road trips. Have a plan.”
Highway deaths nationally in the first quarter were the highest since 2002, according to the report. NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said that while those numbers are “moving in the wrong direction,” the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law should help change the direction.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said Arizona can expect to get approximately $5.3 billion over five years in federal highway formula funding for highways and bridges under that bill.
Gutier hopes traffic fatalities continue to trend downward for the rest of the year.
“We’re great. We’re a really great state,” he said. “Arizona is doing the best they can in traffic enforcement.”