Wednesday, 21 February 2018 13:48

Lincoln, NE, Has More People Driving More Miles, but Fewer Crashes. Why?

Written by Riley Johnson, Lincoln Journal Star
An October crash at 18th and L streets was one of the almost 9,000 reported in Lincoln in 2017. An October crash at 18th and L streets was one of the almost 9,000 reported in Lincoln in 2017. KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star file photo

More people are driving more miles on Lincoln, NE, streets than they were 18 years ago, but that hasn't triggered an increase in fender-benders and T-bone crashes.

The number of reported crashes in the city last year---8,997---was 1 percent lower than the 9,053 in 2000, even though Lincoln's population swelled by almost a quarter in the interim.


The question of exactly why is among the questions city officials hope to answer as part of a regular traffic study set to be released next month.


Lonnie Burklund, the city's assistant director of transportation, said the traffic study will analyze the past five years of crash data and seek to identify patterns at key locations, including problem intersections and street segments. Then the city will develop countermeasures.


Lincoln's annual crash total has hovered around 9,000 in recent years, police statistics show. The peak of 9,713 came in 2007. The nadir---8,085---was in 2012.


Statewide, crashes have been on a downward trend since the millennium began, dropping 27 percent from 2000 to 2016.


Yet in that time, motorists have continued to drive more.


One reason the crash numbers have dropped is tied to a change in state law that upped the damage threshold for reporting wrecks to law enforcement, said Nebraska Highway Safety administrator Fred Zwonechek.


All crashes in which someone is injured or killed on a public road in Nebraska must be reported---That hasn't changed. But in 2004, the state raised its threshold for crashes involving only property damage to $1,000.


That's double the figure from before, and quadruple the $250 threshold that was in place when Zwonechek joined the Highway Safety Office 44 years ago.


The initial change in 2004 reduced the number of reported crashes by 20 percent.


Today, dispatchers in Lincoln field far more calls about crashes than they send officers out to investigate, said Officer Angela Sands, a police spokeswoman.


In a random survey of dispatch logs, officers were sent to an average of 31 crashes each day, Sands said, while an average of 11 didn't meet the damage threshold.


Lawmakers might need to increase that threshold again someday, Zwonechek said, as automakers pack cars with more technology and parts become increasingly expensive.


Infrastructure changes and the adoption of safety technology across the automotive industry have factored into the lower number of crashes, too, he said.


Engineers at the state and local levels have changed how they design roads, and cities such as Lincoln have tweaked traffic signals to better direct driver behavior.


Also, some motorists have taken to heart calls for drivers to reduce their distractions and not text and drive, he said.


Another key might be the cars themselves, Zwonechek said.


Kevin Gilbert of Economy and Performance Auto Services at 17th and O streets agrees.


Automakers have expanded safety features such as the anti-lock braking system, which prevents uncontrolled skidding, Gilbert said. In the mid-to-late 1990s, they were available only in select models.


Today, he said, "it’s pretty much universal."


As more sophisticated safety features continue to hit the market, crashes are increasingly the result of user error.


"The cars really help you a lot now,” Gilbert said.


We thank Lincoln Journal Star for reprint permission.