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Dangerous driving: Fewer citations issued, DOT sees record increase of deadly crashes

State see highest increase in driving deaths in 2021
Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 6:50 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Transportation leaders are calling it a national crisis with 2021 setting records for the dramatic increase of fatalities on our roads.

The spike in deadly crashes is a trend that can be seen across the nation, and it’s unfolding as there are fewer officers on the road and locally, fewer traffic tickets being issued.

“In my district, there are police agencies, law-enforcement agencies, that wrote 50 percent fewer tickets last year than in years past,” said New Hanover District Attorney Ben David. “You think about people who have lost the fear factor of speeding, of driving while impaired — we’ve had 35 fatalities on our roads, just here in New Hanover County.”

The traffic death numbers from 2021 are higher than this area typically sees; however, it’s on par with the DOT reporting the highest rise in fatal crashes ever recorded.

State Highway Patrol data show troopers responded to fewer DWI-related crashes in 2021, but speed continues to be a problem.

“Especially during the pandemic, we’ve seen this increase in high speeds and we know that we really have to wrap our minds around why that is and how to combat it,” said Highway Patrol Sgt. Chris Knox.

WECT requested traffic data from several law enforcement agencies and learned troopers across the state wrote more speeding tickets in 2021 than the previous year, but that wasn’t the case for other agencies.

The New Hanover County Sheriffs Office wrote 3 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2021 than in 2020.

The Wilmington Police Department saw a 48 percent drop in speeding tickets issued in 2021.

“It really didn’t come as a surprise because you have to look at if you were down in personnel, that’s a couple officers on the street not writing citations,” said WPD Sgt. Leslie Irving. “They were probably not stopping as many cars with the pandemic, and for minor charge. If it’s something like a minor charge for a headlight or what-not, maybe they stopped them and gave a verbal warning instead of a citation.”

Filling the many vacancies is something each law enforcement agency admits they continue to struggle with.

Last week, WPD swore in nearly a dozen more officers, but they still face 16 weeks of field training before any of them can be fully operational.

However, Sgt. Irving says WPD is still down 15 officers.

“They’re doing more with less than any time I’ve been a prosecutor,” said DA David. ”One of my real hopes for 2022 is that we really ramp up enforcement, particularly with two things that kill people on the roads: speed and DWI enforcement.”

DWI arrests up in 2021

Though the total number of road fatalities increased in 2021, fewer of them involved alcohol, according to state Highway Patrol data.

Drunk driving is still a problem, but troopers say several factors play into the decrease in deadly crashes involving drugs and alcohol, including increased enforcement.

Statewide, highway patrol had a 12 percent increase in DWI arrest charges, and locally, in 2021, the Wilmington Police Department came in with a 42 percent uptick in DWI arrests compared with 2020 numbers.

The crackdown on impaired drivers is important, given the fact that police suspect drugs and alcohol were a factor in 16 of the 22 deadly crashes in the city of Wilmington last year.

Officers credit the increase in DWI arrests to the city’s bars being back open again after the pandemic shutdown, and also help from community members.

“We’re having more people — more of our citizens are stepping up when they see someone out there that’s driving impaired, they’re calling it in. And we have officers in the area they scanned — they follow cars, give him a detailed description. A lot of people fall asleep at stoplights or stop signs in the car behind him, blowing the horn and they’re slumped over the wheel,” said Sgt. Irving.

Troopers and police officers agree people should expect to see more blue lights in 2022, and that increased enforcement and an emphasis on education could be the key to prevent more tragedies in the future.

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