When Kansas State University Professor Sunanda Dissanayake and other researchers studied traffic fatalities in Kansas, they expected to find that more people had died on the roads.
After all, the state had increased speed limits on some highways to 75 miles per hour. Higher speeds lead to more severe crashes. But they did not expect such a deadly result.
“The percentage increase, by how much it got worse, was a big eye-opener, even for us,” Dissanayake said in an interview.
The researchers compared three years before the speed limit increase and three years after. They tried to control for a variety of factors. They found the higher speed limit led to more crashes and more deaths. Total crashes increased by 27 percent, while fatal and injury crashes rose 35 percent.
The higher speed limit and more time behind the wheel are two factors potentially adding to a disturbing trend in Kansas.
Fatalities on the state’s roads have risen sharply in recent years, mirroring a national trend. That came during a time when Kansas trimmed back and delayed highway updates because of budget problems. Many of those projects included safety improvements.
It’s been a sharp reversal, said Kansas Department of Transportation Highway safety engineer Steven Buckley. Many of the state’s roads had been improved with modern, safer designs in recent decades. Newer vehicles include additional safety features and face more stringent crash testing.
The deaths on Kansas roads totaled 355 in 2015.
“That’s still 355 fatalities too many, but that was one of our record lows,” Buckley said.
In 2016, deaths climbed to 429. Fatalities grew to 461 in 2017. Preliminary KDOT numbers show 2018 deaths at 405. That’s down, but still higher than recent years.
Buckley said the delayed projects, like all highway improvements, include safety in the design.
Republican state Rep. Tom Cox blames factors beyond the speed limit.
Cox will serve on the House Transportation Committee this session. He points to a variety of factors potentially driving up deaths on the roads. One he sees often is distracted drivers using their phones.
“They’re looking straight at their phone on (Interstate 70) going 82 miles per hour,” Cox said.
The rate of crashes on Kansas roads has not increased like the pure number of deaths.
The number of crashes per-miles-driven continues to fall. But affordable gas can mean people spend more time on the road and consequently face a greater risk of crashes.
Cox and other lawmakers hope the state has turned a corner on funding issues as they develop a new long-term transportation plan. The current decade-long plan, T-WORKS, is nearing an end. Some of its projects remain undone.
A major reason for those projects remaining unfinished has been the borrowing of billions of dollars in highway funds. That has bipartisan opposition but became a necessity as lawmakers looked to balance the state budget in the years following the 2012 tax cuts.
Now, those tax cuts are reversed and the state has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank.
Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly has said investing in services is a priority, but she has released few specifics about where and how much she hopes to spend. Those details will come with her budget proposal following the State of the State address next week.
Kelly’s newly named KDOT secretary, Julie Lorenz, hopes Kansas will reduce the transfers out of the highway fund, but she’s not expecting an immediate halt.
“Of course, I would hope to see that, but I think we also have to take a measured, balanced approach,” she said. “It’s a long road to recovery.”
Another advocate for reducing transfers from the state highway fund is Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman. As lawmakers develop a new funding plan for transportation, he says the Legislature needs to be realistic.
“We’re not interested in passing a plan that we can’t pay for,” Ryckman said.
Lawmakers will always have finite resources to use when updating the state’s highways. That means priorities such as safety improvements are constrained by the dollars at hand.
Dissanayake, the K-State researcher, believes her work shows one thing legislators could do to help limit the growth of fatalities: Think long and hard before increasing the speed limit on more of the state’s roads.
“We have to really think carefully,” she said, “because the previous increase did not really go well in terms of the number of crashes and safety.”
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
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