Ohio traffic crash fatalities highest in nearly 20 years

Number of people killed in crashes while not wearing seat belts hits all-time high

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

Last year was the deadliest year on Ohio roadways in nearly two decades, even with traffic levels still below pre-pandemic levels.

The number of Ohio traffic deaths increased from 1,230 in 2020 to 1,360 in 2021, according to Ohio State Highway Patrol data obtained by the Dayton Daily News. That’s the most fatalities the state has seen since 2002, when 1,417 people died in crashes statewide.

According to the State Patrol, the number of individual fatal crashes (1,227) was also the highest in at least five years, marking the third consecutive year that number increased. That indicates the increase was not skewed by a few high-fatality mega-crashes.

Ohio traffic deaths
Ohio traffic deaths 
Source: Ohio Department of Public Safety

There are several reasons why there were so many traffic deaths, even with many people still working from home and driving less, according to Lt. Nathan Dennis, a public information officer for OSHP.

One of the more alarming aspects that OSHP noticed for 2021 was the 21.2% surge in the number of fatalities for those not wearing their safety belts, going from a three-year average of 466 fatalities between 2018 to 2020 to 565 in 2021, he said.

“That is actually the highest it’s ever been on record in Ohio,” Dennis said.

Another issue is people driving too fast, Dennis said, as speed-related fatal crashes increased for the third straight year, to 401.

“It’s no secret that the faster you’re going, the worse of the outcome of that crash could be,” Dennis said. ”We still have an issue with speeding on the roadway, which our troopers are seeing every day. We’re out there working the road and issuing citations for that and we still have the problem going on.”

OVI-related traffic fatalities actually dropped slightly for the second straight year, from 641 to 608, but that’s still roughly 45% of all Ohio traffic deaths for 2021.

Dennis said the number of motorists being arrested for OVI is still a major problem and Ohio is seeing an increase in impaired driving by drug use.

“(OVI) can be alcohol, or it can be marijuana or narcotics or even prescription drugs that are prescribed to somebody,” Dennis said. “There’s warning labels on bottles that say not to drive a vehicle when you take that medication, but people still do, and that’s a form of impaired driving.”

In each of Montgomery, Miami and Butler counties, the number of traffic fatalities in 2021 was the highest it had been in at least five years.

Montgomery County traffic deaths increased slightly in 2021, from 71 to 74, even though the number of fatal crashes dipped from 63 to 61, according to OSHP data. The biggest increases in fatalities from 2020 to 2021 were in Miami County (nearly doubled from 11 to 20) and Butler County (increased from 24 to 34).

Clark County saw little change in 2021, with traffic fatalities falling from 2020′s five-year peak of 23 to 22.

The outliers locally were Greene and Warren counties, each of which saw traffic deaths decline in 2021. Greene fell from 13 to 10, and Warren fell from 15 to 8. For each county, those 2021 totals were the lowest or second-lowest of the past five years.

Increases in fatal highway crashes and the overall amount of fatalities occurred even after traffic volumes hit bottom in April 2020, when they were down nearly 50% compared to the same time a year earlier, according the Ohio Department of Transportation.

ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning said it’s “shocking” that the number of deaths on Ohio highways did not decrease in 2020 when traffic levels drastically dropped off. He said it’s disconcerting that they are still surging at a time when traffic continue to be down by 5% to 7% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

ODOT has around 200 permanent traffic count stations on various routes throughout Ohio.

“During the pandemic, we’ve been running quick data pulls on those sites and comparing them to the same week in 2019 ... and we’re still down,” Bruning said. “For example, (in) the second week of January 2022, traffic was (down) 2% compared to the second week of January 2019. Car traffic was down 4%, while truck traffic was (up) 17%.”

This month, the amount of motorists on Ohio roadways has been down 7% compared to January 2019, he said.

Even when traffic volumes eventually rebound, motorists can reduce the amount of fatalities by following the speed limit, avoiding impaired driving and wearing a seatbelt at all times, as well as avoiding distracted driving, which remains a factor, OSHP’s Dennis said.

“If everybody just simply follows those laws, what will happen is you’re going to see those fatal numbers decrease throughout 2022, and that’s what we’re hoping for,” Dennis said.

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