Traffic fatalities 2021: Officials say fewer cars don't reduce roadway danger as deaths top last year record
Despite reduced car trips and work from home as a result of the pandemic, traffic deaths are continuing to rise beyond the five-year record hit in 2020.
Like last year, officials are citing speeding, risky behavior on the roadways and changes in travel behavior for the 120 crash fatalities in 2021. This is the highest death toll on roadways recorded since at least 2012, stemming from 111 crashes total, according to the Austin Police Department.
Accidents this year included when former Westlake football champ Jackson Coker was killed in a single-car rollover crash in March, when a five-car collision killed one and injured three people in November, and accidents where people report “escaping death” on U.S. Hwy. 290.
Austonia spoke with Police Chief Joseph Chacon and Austin Transportation Department transportation planner Joel Meyer on the next steps for ensuring safety while behind the wheel.
Behind the numbers
It’s not just Austin that is seeing more fatal crashes on the roads—increased wrecks and deaths are part of a nationwide trend. In October, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 2021 showed the highest six-month increase ever recorded in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System’s history and the highest projected number of deaths since 2006.
Though fatalities have risen a little more than 27% when compared to last year, the causes of the accidents remain constant: increased speeding, impaired or distracted driving and failure to yield. Meyer said the Austin Transportation Department initially expected that less traffic would lead to fewer crashes, and it has to an extent, but the wrecks that ensue tend to be deadlier.
“We think it has something to do with the changes in travel patterns that have been happening these last couple of years,” Meyer said. “Fewer people on the streets, fewer trips or less traffic has actually led to more opportunities to speed, which is the number one contributing factor to those severe crashes.”
On top of that, Austin’s rapid growth isn’t helping, as Meyer said major roadways near burgeoning areas like Parmer Lane, Dessau Road and South Congress are starting to see a rise in accidents.
To combat the increased danger on the streets, the City's Vision Zero, a strategic program declaring traffic deaths as a preventable issue that combines safer street design, is targeting law enforcement, evidence-based public policy, public engagement and community participation.
The City has also implemented leading pedestrian intervals, also called pedestrian head starts, to give people on foot extra time to cross the street in 110 high traffic intersections downtown. Meyer said they found a “pretty significant” reduction in pedestrian crashes involving left-turning vehicles and right-turning vehicles.
Vision Zero mapped out the fatal crashes highest-crash roadways in the city. (Vision Zero
According to Chacon, APD takes a more educational approach to safe driving by teaching “the Three E’s,” which are education, engineering and enforcement.
Officers try to educate drivers on the importance of heeding laws like wearing seatbelts, minding speed limits and not driving under the influence. The police force also tries to narrow down which streets or intersections could use upgraded engineering to avoid crashes. Finally, the enforcement piece reminds drivers that there are consequences for breaking the law.
“One of the things that makes the whole program effective is there has to be a consequence for breaking the law, whether that's getting pulled over and you receive a ticket or you're pulled over and given a warning, to understand the importance of traffic safety,” Chacon said.
Officials are predicting at least 123 deaths before the year ends.
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Austin is one of the top metro areas where homebuyer income saw the greatest surge during the pandemic and it came at a cost to locals.
A new analysis by real estate services firm Redfin reports that affluent out-of-towers have contributed to surging home prices in metros like Austin. Due to this trend, Redfin notes, many local buyers with lower incomes have been priced out.
“For white-collar workers earning high salaries, remote work is a huge financial boon,” said Sheharyar Bokhari, Redfin senior economist. Jobs with that flexibility, Bokhari says, enable them to move from a tech hub like San Francisco to a more affordable part of the country where they can get more home for their money and even put some toward a rainy day fund.
“It can have the opposite effect on locals in those destinations–especially renters–who are watching from the sidelines as home prices skyrocket while their income stays mostly the same,” Bokhari said.
In Austin, the median homebuyer income surged 19% from 2019 to 2021, ultimately reaching $137,000. In that time, the median home price growth was 48%, just behind Boise, Idaho which was more than 50%.
But the housing market is starting to slow. Redfin says high mortgage rates and unsustainable price growth have driven demand down. In fact, Austin is among the 20 housing markets that have cooled the fastest in the first half of this year.
“People are still moving in from California and they still have enough money to buy nice homes in desirable neighborhoods, sometimes with all cash,” said Austin Redfin agent Gabriel Recio. “But the days of homes selling for 25% over asking price with multiple offers are over. Buyers are no longer as eager now that mortgage rates are up and there’s buzz in the air about the slowing housing market.”
As a result, Recio says, local and out-of-town buyers have an opportunity to buy a home at the asking price or even under.
Redfin carried out its analysis using data from the home mortgage disclosure act to review median household incomes for homebuyers who took out a mortgage, though it doesn’t include buyers who paid using all cash.
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School is back in session—do you know the latest TikTok trends?
With Austin ISD resuming session on Monday, school officials are keeping tabs on the newest TikTok trends that could pose classroom disruptions and property damage.
TikTok trends swept through Austin-area schools last year with the “Devious Lick” challenge, which encouraged students to steal from school property and reportedly caused $15,000 in damages at Round Round ISD; and the “slap a staff member” challenge.
On the distraction end, a substitute teacher was dismissed from Bowie High School in December after bringing in a karaoke machine to class and singing Britney Spears’ “Toxic” for the class on TikTok.
Officials told KXAN they are staying aware of the trends as they change during the 2022-2023 school year and the district will investigate perceived threats. Since TikTok trends vary in severity, they will also evaluate to see which trends could cause harm or not.
Finally, the school district said it does not tolerate violence or bullying and will focus its efforts on protecting students both physically and digitally.