By KIT NORTON
The number of highway deaths in Vermont was slightly down in 2018 compared to the year before, according to preliminary data from the Vermont Agency of Transportation Office of Highway Safety.
In 2018, there were 60 crashes in which 68 people died on Vermont highways. The year before, 70 people died in 64 crashes, according a report on the data obtained by WCAX.
Of those 60 fatal crashes in 2018, there were five cases where drivers were suspected of driving under the influence of only alcohol, 13 cases where operators were suspected of driving under the influence of drugs only, and 10 instances when drivers were suspected of driving under the influence of both drugs and alcohol.
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he is most concerned about Vermonters and people from out of state using their phones while they are driving. “Over and over again we see people with their phones to their ears or reading and that’s a problem,” Mazza said.
The data also show that the majority – 65 percent – of the people who died on the road were not using a seatbelt; in 22 of the cases, the drivers were believed to have been speeding before the fatal accident.
Mazza said that more people driving at high speeds and not keeping their eyes on the road are all issues leading to deaths on Vermont’s highways.
“Distracted driving is a serious offense and we have to slow people down and keep their mind on the road if we are going to stop the deaths on the highway,” Mazza said.
According to the most up to date numbers on cannabis impaired driving in 2018, the data shows there were 15 cases in which drivers tested positive for delta-9 THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis which remains in the bloodstream directly after consumption.
Since 2013, which is the first year the report has recorded data, the number of cases with confirmed cannabis use has fluctuated, but saw a rise from 11 in 2015 to 18 in 2016, and increasing again to 19 in 2017.
Preliminary data show a decrease in cannabis-involved cases from 2017 to 2018. In 2018, there were 15 cases in which drivers involved in highway fatalities tested positive for delta-9 THC.
John Flannigan, commander of the Vermont State Police traffic safety programs, said the totals are preliminary and may change to reflect toxicology reports from November and December.
“The biggest thing is that the numbers won’t be finalized until February so it doesn’t tell the whole story,” Flannigan said.
Flannigan also said that drug recognition expert evaluations increased by about 25 percent in 2018 compared to 2017—272 evaluations in 2017 and over 350 in 2018, according to Flannigan.
Though the numbers are not as high as they have been in the last two years, Mazza said he believes they will rise in the future as a result of marijuana legalization.
“Numbers are going to fluctuate, but you have to be prepared for the future before the number gets too large and we have to have things in place to figure out whatever the limit is going to be,” Mazza said. “We know there are going to be more cases when it’s legalized so where do you draw the line.”
Mazza also said that a legal recreational cannabis market will make the number of driving fatalities go up in Vermont and that there should be roadside impairment test for cannabis.
“I hope before it’s legalized we have something in place to figure out what is the limit like we do with alcohol,” Mazza said.
It’s still unclear what kind of impact, if any, recreational cannabis use becoming legal on July 1 had on the 2018 numbers, and Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said it may be as long as a decade before the state understands the effect of legalization on impaired driving.
“It’s going take a few years of looking at the data consistently, but my sense is that people have been driving intoxicated for years, and now we just have started focusing on what they had in their system for cannabis, and what amount means they are actually intoxicated or impaired,” Benning said.