Safe driving pushed as deadly crashes rise in Mich.

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Fatal traffic crashes rose in the region in 2015 for the fifth consecutive year, according to a regional planning agency’s study.

And deaths on the roads so far this year show the trend could continue: State officials say Michigan’s 332 fatalities through May 24 are 51 more compared to the same period in 2015.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments found 387 traffic fatalities last year — up from 345 in 2014. Among the findings: accidents involving alcohol and drugs jumped, 22 and 47 percent, respectively, over the previous year. Pedestrian-related traffic incidents also jumped, with a 14 percent increase in fatalities, SEMCOG said. Crashes with motorcycles and bicyclists each spiked more than 20 percent.

Behavior behind the wheel could explain the increase, including cellphone use and other distractions, said Kathleen Lomako, executive director at SEMCOG, which analyzed crash data from the Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center. Statistics were reviewed for Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, St. Clair, Monroe, Washtenaw and Livingston counties.

The statistics are prompting traffic officials to warn drivers to be careful behind the wheel.

“We want people to be safe, and these statistics are pretty startling,” Lomako said.

“There are a lot of socio/economic and environmental variables that can affect these numbers, including the economy, gas prices, changes in travel habits, weather, as well as driver behavior,” said Michael L. Prince, director at the state Office of Highway Safety Planning, referring to its recent finding that Michigan traffic deaths jumped 10 percent last year, from 876 in 2014 to 963.

Distracted driving can come from a phone call, text or surfing the web on cellphones, said David Teater, a corporate consultant who addresses distracted driving and former senior director at the National Safety Council.

“We’re social animals. When someone has information for us, we are compelled to seek it out,” he said. “Even well-meaning people trying to follow policies are going to have trouble ignoring their cellphone when it’s in the car and it goes off.

“They’re addicted to their cellphones and when they get behind the wheel of a car, they have trouble mediating that. And when you add those two things together, we’ve got a real dangerous thing happening.”

Motorists just need to focus behind the wheel, said Gary Matuszak, a representative for the Michigan Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association.

“We’ve just got to figure out how to encourage safe behavior so they can keep their focus,” he said.

The gravity is not lost on Lisa Tomaine of Commerce Township, who strives to stay alert on the road.

“I make sure I’m not talking on my phone, especially on the expressway,” she said. “I definitely don’t text and drive. ... I know people get distracted even just looking away for a second.”

To help drivers’ change habits, state officials are pushing safety efforts.

Through June 5, police departments, sheriff’s offices and the Michigan State Police are stepping up seat belt enforcement during the annual Click It or Ticket campaign.

Over the holiday weekend, MSP troopers joined an international traffic safety initiative, Operation C.A.R.E., or Combined Accident Reduction Effort.

Troopers watched for safety belt violations as well as “drivers who are under the influence of alcohol and drugs or are driving in a reckless and unsafe manner,” said Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, director of the MSP.

On Wednesday, the Office of Highway Safety Planning also launches the second Michigan Summer of Safety campaign.

“Traffic fatalities and serious injuries on the roadways increase during the summer months,” Prince said. “Michigan Summer of Safety is a reminder to all of us to ‘take safety along for the ride’ by always wearing a seat belt, wearing helmets and reflective gear when biking and riding motorcycles, and driving and boating sober.”