Fatality rate lowest in busy King County

In what Washington county are you least likely to be killed in a car accident?

You may be surprised to learn that it's King County, which has the lowest fatality rate of any of Washington's 39 counties.

One explanation is that with so much traffic and congestion, you can't drive fast enough to get killed, said Dick Doane, research analyst with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and the keeper of fatality data.

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"King County has strong enforcement programs, and it's widely held in a congested urban environment the fatal-crash rate goes down because drivers are not able to generate speeds capable of killing each other," Doane said. "And King County has a very good public-health and safety program compared to a lot of the smaller, more rural counties."

The most dangerous county? Tiny San Juan County had the highest traffic-death rate between 1992 and 2001, followed by Ferry County in northeast Washington. The death rates are based on deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, and in San Juan County, with 10 fatal accidents, the rate was 3.23 in the 10-year period.

In King County it was a rate of 0.78 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles, with 1,178 fatal crashes.

For years the traffic-safety council has contracted with the federal government to keep track of fatalities, and has churned out information on everything from drunken-driver crash rates to seat-belt use, and even weather and time of day for most fatalities.

Not much surprises Doane, who crunches the data, but he said what jumped out at him was how dangerous county roads are.

"They're overrepresented in serious crashes, and it's a real problem area we're starting to focus more and more attention on," Doane said. The safest roads, he said, are interstates, which are designed with better visibility and adequate lane width. They're built for people to drive on at 60 and 70 miles per hour; county roads aren't.

His study found that, between 1993 and 2000, 32 percent of fatal crashes occurred on county roads — by far the highest of any road type. Interstates had 11.5 percent of the fatalities.

Thirty percent of all drunken-driver-related fatalities occurred on county roads.

Among other findings

• Not wearing a seat belt dramatically increased fatalities. Studying passenger-vehicle occupants in fatal crashes, the traffic commission found only 39 percent statewide had seat belts buckled. It was only 15 percent in Okanogan County.

• Between 1993 and 2000, 43 percent of fatal crashes in the state involved drunken drivers. In Ferry County, it was 68 percent.

• Fatal crashes in the state generally involved the oldest and youngest drivers. The group with the highest fatality rate, 5.23 deaths per 10,000 licensed drivers, was 16-year-olds. The rate was 3.84 per 10,000 for drivers over age 81. The safest drivers seemed to be those between age 61 and 70.

• The highest percentage of fatalities occurred between 9 p.m. and midnight in good weather. Only 14 percent of drunken-driving fatalities occurred in the rain.

• Seat-belt use is much higher in Western Washington than in Eastern Washington.

In 2001, before the new, tough law went into effect, the commission found 85 percent of King County residents were wearing their seat belts. Last year that went up to 93 percent.

In comparison, only 61 percent of those in Stevens County were buckled up in 2001; it was 83 percent last year.

Seat-belt use is highest on the interstates, where 86 percent wear them, and lowest on city streets, where 71 percent do.

Despite the sobering numbers, Doane said traffic fatalities are a quarter of what they were 30 years ago.

In 1968, the traffic-death rate was nearly 5 per 100 million miles driven; in 2000, that had dropped to 1.2 deaths per 100 million. Doane credits three main factors: safer roads, better-built cars and human factors, such as wearing seat belts.

Bumper crop

Ferry fares are going up. Beginning May 4, most fares will increase 5 percent. On central Puget Sound routes, the full-fare passenger rate will go from $5.10 roundtrip to $5.40 on May 4, and to $5.70 in May 2004.

Peak-season car and driver rates will go from $11.25 to $12 this May and to $12.50 in 2004.

Frequent-user coupon books will also change, and frequent-user-passenger discounts will drop from 25 percent to 20 percent. Passenger-only ferry fares will increase from $7.10 to $7.40, but the service is scheduled to be canceled June 15. For specific fares, go to www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.

Studded-tire deadline

Studded tires must be off your vehicles by Monday. The fine for using studded tires after that is $86. The Department of Transportation says the forecast calls for wet and warmer weather.