Using data from the National Highway Traffic and Safety administration, a recent study by Car Insurance Comparison found that Rhode Island ranks No. 31 for worst drivers in the nation, with 1 being the worst and 50 the best.
Rhode Island ranked 47th in the failure to obey category, 32nd worst in careless driving, 11th in drunk driving and 4th in speeding. In addition, the study found that there were 50 fatalities for every 100 million vehicles mile traveled.
In 2018, the Rhode Island state police issued 8,754 speeding tickets, made 398 arrests for drunk driving and issued 439 citations for distracted driving. Lloyd Albert, senior vice president of government and public affairs at AAA Northeast is pleased with some of the numbers and troubled by others.“We’ve got a good record there,” he said of the obey category. He said that is reflective of good law enforcement.Troubling, especially since it is totally avoidable, is the number of fatalities attributable to driving impaired. Nationally for 2017, he said, the rate is 29 percent of auto fatalities are a result of impairment, but in Rhode Island it was 41 percent for 2017.“There’s work to be done here,” he said.
To increase road safety and inform citizens about the risks of impaired driving, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation uses a data-driven approach when completing studies or introducing new initiatives. They receive crash data from the local cities and towns across the state, and use that when deciding what projects and initiatives to fund.
“We approach safety in two ways - the improvements we can make on the roads, which could be correcting a bad curve or intersection, and then we have the behavioral side where we’re trying to initiate a bit of a culture change,” said Charles St. Martin, the Chief Public Affairs officer at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
In recent years, the state has shifted a majority of their funds to the behavioral side, and as a result, introduced new components to their impaired driving program. St. Martin estimates that they spend about $4.5 million.
At the end of 2016, the department started a series named “beyond the crash.” The series is focused on the state police and how difficult it can be for them to notify families. In early 2018, another series called “The Ripple Effect” showcased friends and family members who had lost loved ones to drunk driving accidents, or of victims who survived such accidents but were forever maimed.
“There’s that one decision that one person is going to make that will create unknown and untold amounts of ripples,” St. Martin said. “The series explores the consequences and the resulting factors from that decision.”
He explained that the department of transportation focuses its efforts on engaging the public. By using real stories about those that have been affected, the department is able to keep the conversation going.
“We’re looking at a number of different ways to keep the message at the forefront,” St. Martin said. “Many public health and safety agencies are working together to get the message out. We’ve been running a lot of those messages between Thanksgiving and New Years as a way to get the message across and start the conversation.”
On the engineering side of safety, St. Martin explained that Rhode Island introduced a wrong way driving detection program a few years ago. Furthermore, the department of transportation has a new focus on roundabouts across the state.
The wrong way driving detection program was designed to stop people from getting on the wrong side of a ramp when entering a highway. If a driver went on the wrong side, signs would flash at them to turn around. If they went past a certain point, the police would be alerted so they could change the highway message boards and alert drivers on the road.
“Those have gone off over 100 times and we haven’t had any fatal crashes,” St. Martin said.
As for the focus on roundabouts, St. Martin said they have been shown to reduce congestion, as well as reduce crashes and fatalities by a significant percentage rate.
“Throughout the department we work to incorporate safety features,” he said. “We look at roads and intersections, and their crash history when we go to redesign.”
New legislation in recent years has also been focused on increasing the safety of drivers on the road. The Rhode Island Hands-Free law, which took effect on June 1, 2018, states that drivers cannot hold a cell phone or other wireless device while operating a vehicle. If a police officer catches a citizen, they will be pulled over and can be fined up to $100.
The state also makes an effort to educate everyone who holds a drivers license about operating a vehicle and sharing the road. Anyone who is under 18 years old and wants to apply for a Rhode Island Learner’s Permit must complete a drivers education course, which requires them to spend 33 hours learning safe and defensive driving techniques, traffic laws and rules of the road, how to respond to hazardous situations and conditions, how to operate a vehicle and substance abuse and its effects on driving. These programs are run through the Department of Motor Vehicles and must be approved by the Community College of Rhode Island.
“Safety is a top priority in everything that we do here,” St. Martin said. “It’s a constant process of proactive planning reacting quickly to changes that might be needed.”