It’s a bit of a shocker. The pandemic shut things down in 2020, including Vermont’s traffic levels which were reduced an estimated 25 percent. That, in turn, meant a reduction in car crashes — the lowest in five years. Yet, we saw a 30 percent increase in number of people killed on Vermont’s roads, from 47 deaths in 2019 to 62 deaths in 2020.

The logic doesn’t follow. Typically, the more people we have driving, the greater the number of accidents, including deaths. So what explains a 25 percent reduction in traffic and a 30 percent increase in auto fatalities?

No one is quite sure.

But the guesses include the connection between driving and increased alcohol consumption, which, nationally has increased 14 percent a 30-year high.

There is the suggestion that the stress of the pandemic has caused drivers’ minds to stray, meaning they are not as alert as they might be otherwise.

Then, there is the suggestion that drivers are aware there are fewer police on the roads and that they are less likely to pull anyone over. The fear of pulling someone over and catching the virus, or infecting anyone else has prompted authorities across the state to scale back their enforcement efforts. Considerably.

For the vast majority of Vermonters the reduction of enforcement doesn’t invite careless driving. But it does increase the level of risk taken by that small percentage of drivers who consistently test the limits. If they think they are not going to be stopped, that’s an invitation to speed.

The increase the state has seen in single fatality crashes emphasizes that point. People have lost control of their vehicles. Speed kills.

Here’s the bigger picture concern: For a variety of reasons the currency of our police officers is at low ebb. The conduct of a few bad ones is used to define them all. It’s becoming difficult to recruit people into the profession and it’s becoming difficult to keep the officers we have.

There is an obvious price to pay. The lower the enforcement levels, the less safe we are, and that means on our roads and in our communities. It’s a struggle on display in the City of Burlington, where the number of uniformed officers in the city’s police department was cut 30 percent by the city council, down from 105 officers to 74 officers.

It’s as if there is no correlation between crime in our communities and the number of officers on the street, the same correlation between the lack of enforcement on our highways and a 30 percent increase in fatalities.

The problem is that the finger of blame always points to law enforcement, and community officials. People complain when the help isn’t there. But they never assume responsibility for failing to support their police departments when their help was needed. They fall silent. No accountability. They drift to other causes, leaving the community less safe, less protected.

We forget that the primary responsibility of government is the public’s safety. While much work remains in raising the standards of law enforcement to acceptable levels, the public’s safety isn’t something that can be assumed.

A 30 percent increase in traffic fatalities is just one measure of that need.

by Emerson Lynn

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