State Proposals Aim to Lower Traffic Deaths by Improving Driver Behavior

"No right turn on red" graphic
Legislation that would ban right turns at some red lights will be on legislators’ transportation agenda this year.

By Ryan Packer

At the year’s first meeting of the Washington state senate’s transportation committee earlier this week, Governor Jay Inslee’s office delivered some sobering news: More than 700 people were killed by traffic violence on the state’s roadways in 2022, a figure not seen since the late 1990s.

Washington was one of the first states to commit itself to ending serious traffic-related injuries and fatalities back in 2000. Recently, however, the numbers have been trending in the wrong direction.

In 2022, lawmakers were focused on passing a large transportation spending package, divvying up projects throughout the state, and the legislature’s Democratic caucus was successful in approving the 16-year, $17 billion Move Ahead Washington funding package. This year, their attention will turn to policy—including several bills aimed at reducing traffic deaths by changing how drivers behave.

One approach involves reforming the state’s driver’s education system by requiring all residents, not just drivers under 18, to take a driver’s ed course before getting a license. According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, only around 10 percent of the school districts in the state offer any form of driver’s ed at all. Drivers under 18 are required to complete a driver’s ed course with at least 30 hours of instruction to get their driver’s license in Washington, but drivers 18 and older only have to pass a written exam and in-person driving test.

The traffic safety commission found that drivers between 18 and 20 who did not complete a driver training course had a fatal or serious injury crash rate 75 percent higher than those who did; this trend held true for older adults as well.

“The way that we allow people, once they’ve turned 18, to take the driver’s test without any formal education, is counter to how we do every other type of education.”—Washington Bikes policy director Vicky Clarke

“You can see very clearly when you look at the data that drivers who have been through driver’s ed are meaningfully safer drivers,” said Vicky Clarke, the policy director for Washington Bikes. Washington Bikes is backing a bill, which will be introduced soon, that would require all residents getting their first driver’s license to go through driver’s ed. It’s unclear whether the bill would allow people moving from other states to transfer their existing license to Washington without taking a course. An important component of the bill will be state funding to allow low-income drivers to be able to afford private driving classes.

Clarke noted that a test requirement without any education component isn’t aligned with other types of education that happen in the state. “The way that we allow people, once they’ve turned 18, to take the driver’s test without any formal education, is counter to how we do every other type of education,” she said.

Another bill likely to gain traction in the weeks ahead is one that would lower Washington’s threshold for drivers to be cited for driving under the influence of alcohol from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent blood alcohol content, following in the footsteps of Utah, which approved that change in 2017. In the year following the law’s adoption, Utah saw its fatal crash rate drop by nearly 20 percent, and did not see a significant rise in the number of DUI-related arrests, suggesting the law directly changed drivers’ habits. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending every state in the country make that change since 2013, saying that it would save more than 1,500 lives nationwide every year.

“For us in Washington, that translates to somewhere between 30 and 40 Washingtonians that wouldn’t be killed on our highways [every year] if we saw similar results here,” Senator Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), chair of the senate transportation committee, said. The bill, whose primary sponsor is Sen. John Lovick (D-44, Mill Creek) already has twelve co-sponsors in the state senate, and is widely expected to pass.

Another bill that will be introduced soon would require cities to ban free right-turn-on-red for drivers at specific intersections in busy urban environments around schools, parks, and commercial areasRestricting dangerous turn movements like free-right-on-red would get closer to transforming the urban environment in a way that makes errors on any road user’s part less likely to cause injury.

This session, Liias and Sen. Curtis King (R-14, Yakima) are proposing a bill that would empower the Washington State Department of Transportation to use cameras to enforce speed restrictions around highway work zones. Over the past decade, there has been an average of 626 work-zone related injuries on state highways every year, along with an increasing number of fatalities. In the past, lawmakers have generally been wary of expanding the use of automated cameras, but this bill could have more traction due to its impact on state workers.

Liias said that data, along with common sense, would be a guiding principle for him as he considered laws that focus on driver behavior. “I want to sort of think about it collectively and as a theme, so we would make a number of changes that would, overall, contribute to fewer serious injuries and fatalities in our transportation system.”

“Consigning ourselves to lose 700 people a year until ten years from now when we’ve got critical mass on those [Move Ahead Washington] investments is just not acceptable. We need action this year that’s going to save lives and the data show that some of these behavioral [regulations] do have a material impact.” — State Senate Transportation Chair Marko Liias

These proposed changes seeking to change driver behavior in the near-term are going to need to work hand-in-hand with the longer term projects to modify the state’s roadways to make them safe for all users. That’s one of the goals of the “Safe Systems” approach that many transportation officials in Washington state have started to embrace, which leans heavily on changes to roadways and vehicles to improve safety, as opposed to driver education and enforcement.

The nearly $17 billion Move Ahead Washington package includes more state funding than ever before for cities and counties to improve pedestrian crossings, create protected bike lanes, and add traffic calming. It even requires nearly every state highway maintenance project to include space for people to walk and bike if that space isn’t currently there. But the impact of those changes won’t be seen for some time.

“Consigning ourselves to lose 700 people a year until ten years from now when we’ve got critical mass on those investments is just not acceptable,” Liias said, referring to projects coming from the Move Ahead Washington package. “We’ve committed the state system to move to a safe systems approach … but we need action this year that’s going to save lives and the data show that some of these behavioral pieces do have a material impact,” and work hand-in-hand with upgrading infrastructure, Liias said.

The legislature will likely come together around a few of these proposals, like lowering the DUI limit and adding cameras to highway work zones. Others, like banning right turns at certain red lights, could face more resistance.

11 thoughts on “State Proposals Aim to Lower Traffic Deaths by Improving Driver Behavior”

  1. New laws without ENFORCEMENT are meaningless. I’ve seen COPS make an right-on-red without coming to a complete stop… so good luck with that one!

  2. What about pedestrians who are walking in road under the influence? Crossing in between corners or just walking in street for whatever reason. I’ve seen all three of these – they happen often. Do pedestrians have any responsibility to obey pedestrian laws? I’d like to see the data. This may not be majority of incidents but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a decent percentage of the pedestrian deaths. You can’t legislate these away – only more enforcement of hotspots might help prevent some of those.

  3. Great to have you here, Ryan – and thanks for the rundown of upcoming bills both here and on Twitter! Would be great to know when these open up for comment in committee so folks can voice support…

    1. State-wide and for 16 years, so we’re talking about a little over $1B/year for the entire state of Washington. If we scaled it down by population, that’d be like an investment of ~$100M/year in Seattle which doesn’t seem outrageous to me to maintain roads and transportation…

  4. We are rapidly approaching a fossil fuel energy crisis… We should make changes that eliminate driving needs…
    Like “work from home” and “door dash” deliveries…Uber too

    1. Uber, Lyft, and delivery services such as DoorDash have actually increased congestion. Many studies on this!

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