We’re driving faster, we’re driving drunker, and we’re driving meaner. Whether it was motorists using guns and knives on each other, driving while intoxicated, or taking speedy advantage of last year’s repeal of the nationwide 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, driving was a risky business in 1996.
While some states, including Florida, Montana, Utah, and Massachusetts, actually recorded fewer highway fatalities since raising the speed limit, a survey by The Associated Press found in December that one year after the increase in highway speed limits to 65 or 75 mph, traffic deaths in eight states rose in some cases, dramatically.
Alabama, California, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Dakota all saw increased death rates. In Texas, traffic deaths rose 17 percent to an average of 40 more per month. If the trend continues, the state will have its highest death toll 3,600 since 1985.
Speed was said to be a factor in 30 percent to 33 percent of traffic deaths in Oklahoma in 1995, the most recent figures available. That figure is up from 20 percent before the repeal.
In Nebraska, thirteen fatalities were recorded on Interstate 80 during the first five months of this year, and 14 more occurred in just two months after the state raised the speed limit to 75. By October, the state had already equaled the one-year total of 27 that was chalked up in 1988, the highest number ever recorded.
In its most recent figures, the National Safety Council reported that in 1995, traffic deaths rose 2.8 percent, to 43,900. The year marked the third consecutive increase in highway deaths after an all-time low in 1992 of 40,982. Alcohol-related fatalities in 1995 rose to 17,274 from 16,589 the year before. “We are seeing, for the first time, a remarkable reversal of the progress since the 1980s,” said Jerry Scannell, the council’s president.
Montana, however, has no daytime speed limit. While some laughingly refer to its highways as “Montanabahns” after Germany’s no-speed-limit highways, the state’s number of traffic fatalities as of Sept. 30 stood at 152, a decrease of 13 from the same period a year earlier. For about 85 percent of drivers, Montana’s “reasonable and prudent” daytime speed is 75 mph on Interstates and 65 on two-lane highways. The other 15 percent of motorists travel at speeds of up to 100 mph.
In Virginia, officials said in September that the number of DWI arrests had dropped by 12.1 percent and alcohol-related fatalities by 9.3 percent since 1994, when the blood-alcohol threshold for driving was lowered from .10 percent to .08 percent. Apparently, 35-year-old Christopher Barbour of Fredericksburg did not hear the good news, because he was arrested for drunken driving in July when he and his 23-year-old girlfriend played a fantasy game of “naked hitchhiker.” The girlfriend took her clothes off and waited for Barbour to come down the road for her. Unfortunately, he was minutes too late, and a woman motorist got the surprise of her life when Barbour’s nude girlfriend jumped in her car.
In other parts of the country, alcohol-related crashes rose. Despite a 19-percent increase in drunken driving arrests by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, fatal crashes increased by 6 percent in 1996 as compared with the year before.
Even police were arrested for drunken driving and being drunk on duty as DUI officers. In Missouri, Tim Matthews, a seven-year veteran of the Nixa Police Department, resigned July 17 after being arrested for drunken driving while attending a safety seminar.
Walsenburg, Colo., Officer Robert Pacheco was suspended after being discovered drunk on the job while serving as the department’s DUI enforcement officer. He was later reinstated.
Guns, knives, clubs and tire irons were found to be the favored weapons 44 percent of the time when a motorist sets upon his fellow motorist. According to a study released in November by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, violence by malicious drivers rose 51 percent from 1990 to 1996. The most aggressive drivers were young, poorly educated men, said the study. Only 4 percent of the incidents involved women.
The same month that study was released, the California Highway Patrol arrested two men, Jose Soto, 21, and Hugo Hernandez, 22, in connection with a spree of mysterious window-shattering attacks that began on Sept. 11 and left Southern California drivers angry and frightened.
The attacks, some 240 of which were reported, typically involved some kind of projectile being hurled through the vehicle’s back or side window. A search of Soto’s home turned up a 9mm. semiautomatic pistol and an AK-47 rifle. Marbles and a stock of BBs were also found.