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Transportation

2021 is the deadliest year on Austin roads

Traffic on MoPac during rush hour
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Traffic on MoPac during rush hour. Austin has set a new record for the number of people killed in traffic in a single year.

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This year has been the deadliest ever on Austin's roads with at least 106 people killed in traffic crashes. The new death toll exceeds the previous record of 105 fatalities in 2015, according to a Texas Department of Transportation database of crash reports filed by police officers.

Austin police reported the 106th death today, although it happened on Nov. 10. The driver of an SUV struck and killed a 42-year-old woman who was walking on East U.S. 290 near Berkman Drive. The driver stayed at the scene and cooperated with police. Detectives are still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

The public is mostly shielded from the graphic details of these violent deaths. But each fatality inflicts a unique trauma on the victim’s family and friends: the shock of suddenly losing a loved one in a public space where vehicles continue to flow as soon as the scene is cleared.

"You process the scene, but then after that you have to talk to the family," said Renee Fox, a detective with the Austin Police Department's vehicular homicide unit. "You start to find out that this individual that was killed had a mom, a dad, siblings and friends. You start to realize the whole human makeup of this individual and it stays with you."

"There's been times where I go home and tell my husband about something that's happened and just cry," she said.

Makeshift memorial at 7th and Springdale
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Makeshift memorials like these are scattered around the city to remember those killed in traffic. This one remembered 20-year-old Javier Emanuel Niño Esparza who was killed in 2019 when an intoxicated man drove through a red light and struck his car at the intersection of Seventh Street and Springdale Avenue.

In one particularly tragic crash, a 16-year-old girl's SUV rolled over a concrete barrier on the U.S. 183 flyover to Texas 45. The Honda CRV fell to the roadway below. Aaliyah Marie Martinez was rushed to a hospital and pronounced dead.

"No parent ever thinks they will be burying their baby," reads a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Aaliyah's funeral costs. The page shows a smiling teenage girl with braces and ripped jeans standing against a brick wall.

The record death toll in Austin coincides with a sharp rise in fatalities on roads nationwide. During the first half of 2021, more than 20,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes, according to a recent estimate from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That total was up 18.4% over the first half of 2020, the highest increase on record.

The circumstances of individual crashes vary, but traffic researchers observe a recurring set of causes: driving intoxicated, not wearing a seatbelt and excessive speed. All three behaviors are more common now than before the pandemic, according to NHTSA behavioral research analyzing crashes from March 2020 through June 2021.

Traffic on MoPac
Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
The Austin-area's sprawling development incentivizes greater reliance on automobiles.

The city has made attempts to reduce fatalities and serious injuries by reconfiguring intersections that have frequent crashes, adjusting signal timing and orchestrating public awareness campaigns.

"Some of that takes time, but we're starting to see some of those numbers play out positively towards reductions in crashes, reductions in severity at the locations where we're doing work," Austin Transportation Department Safety Officer Lewis Leff said. He pointed to a 9% reduction this year in serious injury crashes.

Austin has a "Vision Zero" goal of reducing traffic deaths and serious injuries to zero by the year 2025. A city audit three years ago cast doubt on the goal, a skepticism substantiated by this year's carnage.

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