As of last week, 14 people had died on Delaware roads in July alone. Summer, with more people driving in the state, sees more traffic deaths.

As of last week, 14 people had died on Delaware roads in July alone.

In one crash July 6, five members of the Trinidad family of Teaneck, New Jersey, were killed on their way home from a beach vacation when another driver crossed the Route 1 median in Townsend and struck their vehicle.

The total so far this month is slightly higher than the 10-year statewide average of 11 per month. In 2016, there were 16 traffic fatalities in July.

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“We have nearly 14,000 miles of road in our state and we’re doing our best to make them all as safe as possible,” said Charles MacLeod, director of communications at the Delaware Department of Transportation. “We need people to do their part.”

Over 20 years ending in 2015, the state averaged 113 fatal crashes a year, with 125 deaths. In only four years  was the crash total below 100.

So far this year, according to the state, from Jan. 1 to July 17 there have been 61 fatalities on the roads. Over the same period in 2017, there were 47.

MacLeod and his colleagues are desperate to highlight highway safety awareness in Delaware.

“It’s hard to see these tragedies continue to happen,” he said.

Prevention

Agencies like DelDOT, the Delaware Office of Highway Safety and the Delaware State Police have initiatives to prevent traffic fatalities, but Mitch Topal, Office of Highway Safety public information officer, said the numbers inevitably go up in summer.

“Generally, there’s a pretty significant uptick in fatal crashes in July because of the number of cars on the road,” Topal said. “A lot more vehicles are traveling on Route 1, and a lot of them are out of state vehicles.”

That doesn’t mean OHS and its partners aren’t doing everything they can to prevent fatalities. In April, OHS funded state police patrols in unconventional, unmarked vehicles to catch distracted drivers. Thirty violations were issued.

“We want Delaware motorists to understand the risks of cell phone and other mobile device usage while driving,” Topal said.

The state police conduct regular drunk driving checks throughout the state. Alcohol was a factor in 29 percent of Delaware’s fatal crashes in 2016. On Saturday, July 14, checkpoints resulted in six DUI charges and 96 other citations.

DelDOT is the agency responsible highway engineering. MacLeod said the agency was making plans well before the Trinidad family crash led many to demand improvements to median barriers.

“We have a previously planned project, beginning this year, to add another 11.5 miles of median barrier, a high tension cable system, on Route 1 from south of Middletown to north of Smyrna,” MacLeod said. “An additional 12 miles will be added from Smyrna to Dover next year, and we’re simultaneously working on sections of I-95.”

DelDOT plans to install barriers the entire length of Route 1.

Deadly habits

Nationally, distracted driving fatalities have been rising since 2012. In 2016, inattention, distraction or fatigue caused 23 percent of all crashes. They were the number-one cause in Delaware.

Sgt. Richard Bratz, director of public information for the state police, said on one occasion he saw a person driving with their knees, speeding and using both hands to text.

“You absolutely have to pay attention to what’s going on around you and expect the unexpected to happen,” he said.

He’s also seen people distracted by things like eating while driving or changing clothes.

“That is risky behavior,” Bratz said. “It’s up to the individual drivers to make safe choices.”

Risky behavior leads to other foolish driving habits, and that includes going without a seatbelt.

“Your chance of being in a fatal accident goes up 50 percent when you’re not wearing your seatbelt,” he said.

Speeding is also unnecessarily risky. Speed was a contributing factor in 38 percent of fatal crashes in 2016.

MacLeod said speeding in construction zones is especially risky.

“We’re actually seeing a lot of speeding in construction zones recently, and you know, there’s a lot of construction in this state right now,” MacLeod said. “That’s just a recipe for disaster.”

Deadly stroll

Pedestrians add to the traffic fatality toll. Bratz said pedestrians should be aware of danger on the roads and take safety precautions.

Despite its small size, Delaware is especially dangerous. On a population basis, New Mexico is the worst state for pedestrian deaths, at 3.45 per 100,000 residents. Delaware is in fifth place, nearly tied with Arizona (2.85 per 100,000), at 2.83 per 100,000 population. Despite their much larger populations and large cities, Texas is in ninth place and California in tenth.

He recommended wearing bright, reflective clothing and carrying a light. Walkers should use pedestrian crosswalks and sidewalks. According to the latest annual report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, 80 percent of fatal pedestrian crashes are at night.

Impairment can be a factor. “In 34 percent of all pedestrian crashes, the pedestrian was under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” Bratz said.

“I can’t stress it enough,” he said. “It’s worth walking the extra 50 or 100 yards than to try to weave through traffic. It’s just not worth the risk.”

All three agencies – DelDOT, OHS and DSP – are busy working to keep roads safe, but Bratz said they can’t do it alone.

“Back in the day, when my mom and dad drove, they just drove,” Bratz said. “Now, we’re more challenged by those drivers who make bad decisions.”