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‘People are driving recklessly’: More than 400 people died on Massachusetts roads last year, a 19% spike from 2020

People speeding, driving while impaired, and not wearing seat belts are all major factors

Canton, MA – December 7:   Traffic along route 128 on December 7, 2021 in , Canton, MA. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Canton, MA – December 7: Traffic along route 128 on December 7, 2021 in , Canton, MA. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
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More than 400 people died on Bay State roads last year, a “troublesome” major spike from previous years as a growing number of daredevils recklessly speed, drive impaired and fail to wear seat belts, according to state data.

The state Department of Transportation’s traffic-related-fatality data shows that 408 people died on Massachusetts roads in 2021. This includes drivers, passengers in vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.

The 408 deaths is a 19% spike from the 2020 tally of 343 fatalities. The total surpassing 400 deaths is more crash fatalities than any year since 2009.

“We’re dealing with an epidemic of traffic fatalities in this country, and it’s getting worse every year,” said Mark Schieldrop of AAA Northeast. “It’s really discouraging to see we’re on the uptick.

“People are driving recklessly,” he added. “Speeding is such a big issue … People need to refocus on their driving and think of it as a job.”

Speeding has shot up since the start of the pandemic, when lockdowns went into effect and roads emptied out. Massachusetts State Police have clocked drivers going over 100 mph in several instances over the past two years.

“A lot of it has to do with riskier behavior,” MassDOT Safety Engineer Bonnie Polin said of the significant rise in fatalities, calling the upward trend “troublesome.”

Other major factors were people driving while impaired and not wearing seat belts, she said.

There was a dramatic increase in motorcycle deaths in 2021. Eighty motorcycle operators and passengers died last year, a 38% jump from 58 deaths in 2020. State officials have created a subcommittee to look at motorcycle fatalities.

“Deaths are unacceptable,” Polin said. “We are not going to live with 408 fatalities, or even 350 fatalities or less. We really want to strive to get to zero. It might not be possible next year, but we’re going to really bring everyone together to try and get to zero.”

Massachusetts has a lower seat-belt usage rate than Connecticut, Schieldrop noted. The Bay State rate is around 78%, while Connecticut’s rate is in the mid-90% range. Massachusetts only has a secondary seat-belt law, while Connecticut has a stricter primary seat-belt law — that means people in Connecticut can be pulled over simply for not wearing one, while in Massachusetts the cops would need another reason to make a traffic stop.

“Every driver should make sure all of their passengers are buckled up, that they won’t move from park to drive unless every passenger’s seat belt is clicked,” Schieldrop said.

Drivers need to undergo a major behavioral change while out on the roads, said Emily Stein, president of Safe Roads Alliance. Many operators don’t think of other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians they share the roads with, she said.

“We don’t have a good attitude when we get behind the wheel,” Stein said, adding, “We need drivers to understand that driving is not a right. It’s a privilege, and you have the power to take away someone’s life.”

Roadway design is also an important factor, according to Josh Ostroff of Transportation for Massachusetts. Wider lanes, for instance, lead people to drive faster, he said.

“A 12-foot wide travel lane is suitable for an interstate, but on an urban street less width is preferable,” Ostroff said. “People will react to having less space and travel slower.”

Polin of MassDOT also emphasized the importance of designing roads differently to help reduce speeding on some roads.

The state has to “design around the mistakes people make,” she said.

“People could get in a car and drive, and they’re impaired,” Polin said. “They could be stupid and do those kinds of things, but we need to put rumble strips out there. We need to give them guidance.

“We need to put in wrong-way signs on interstates because people do get on the highway going the wrong direction — whether it’s because they’re impaired or whether they’re fatigued or it’s not clear to them,” she added. “We have to take it upon ourselves to help them, to guide people who do make mistakes.”