During most of the past two decades, the annual number of alcohol-related traffic deaths across the country has fallen by about 20 percent, to more than 11,500.
More stringent drunken driving laws, widespread public education campaigns and safer vehicles all have played a role in that sharp reduction.
In Oklahoma, however, it’s been a much different story. Despite having the same safer vehicles, increased educational efforts and tougher laws, the state saw a 10 percent increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths between 1994 and 2012. The trend mystifies state public-safety officials.
In 2011, there were 249 such fatalities; last year, there were 261. Only six other states also saw increases over the 18-year period, according to the most recent data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Gary Thomas, director of Oklahoma Highway Safety Office, doesn’t mince words about the state’s relatively poor track record in cutting alcohol-related traffic deaths.
“We’re bad,” he says. “We couldn’t get much worse.”
The picture is similar for overall traffic fatalities. Since 1994, road deaths in Oklahoma have hovered around 700 or 800 per year, or about two per day. The country as a whole has seen a 21 percent decline. Oklahoma’s fatality rate per 100 million vehicle-miles driven has dropped, particularly in recent years, but not as much as the nation’s. The state had the ninth highest rate of traffic deaths in 2011.
If just Oklahoma’s alcohol-related traffic-fatality rate had declined at the same pace as the nation’s since 1994, 47 fewer people would have died last year.
Why Oklahoma is doing relatively poorly in reducing traffic deaths isn’t clear.
The state already has implemented many of the best practices used in other states, Thomas said. For example, Thomas’ office coordinates seat-belt awareness campaigns and increased enforcement efforts, as well as impaired-driving training and enforcement campaigns, which ramped up in 2012. The state also employs a full-time prosecutor to help smaller communities in Oklahoma enforce drunken driving laws.
“There’s nothing they’re (other states) doing that we’re not doing,” he said. “It’s a very confusing puzzle.”
The Office of Highway Safety is conducting a study looking specifically at drunken driving fatalities, and that report should be ready by the beginning of 2014, Thomas said. The study should give his agency more insight into why the numbers are relatively high, he said.
Oklahoma Watch examined various data sets that track causes of traffic fatalities, but did not find any large differences between Oklahoma and U.S. figures. For instance, the percentages of U.S. and Oklahoma drivers in fatality accidents without licenses, with suspended licenses or with previous DUIs were all similar. So were the percentages of fatal accidents whose main causes were speeding and distracted driving.
The only area where Oklahoma had a disparity was in seat-belt usage. Between 1994 and 2011, 58 percent of fatality victims in Oklahoma were not wearing a seat belt, compared with 51 percent nationwide.