Car Crash City: Are vehicle accidents on the rise in northern Michigan?

“Traffic warning.” “Accident blocked.” “Please seek alternate route.”

If you follow the Grand Traverse 911 page on Facebook, you've probably noticed these phrases become an almost daily part of your news feed. There have been so many such bulletins in Traverse City lately that locals are starting to wonder if the area will see a historically high number of car accidents in 2024. With summer traffic at its peak, Ticker We analysed the data to find out what's happening on our local roads – and whether it's business as usual or a change in trend.

Brandon Brinks is the captain of the road patrol division for the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Office. Brinks says he won't have any idea how 2024 will compare to previous years until he prepares his year-end report in January, but he believes the numbers so far are “not extraordinary.”

According to Brinks, there were 726 car crashes in Grand Traverse County in the first five months of 2024, including 100 crashes involving injuries and three crash deaths. Those numbers are actually slightly lower than 2023, which saw 764 crashes, 115 car crash injuries and three deaths between Jan. 1 and May 31. Brinks says the numbers for both years are in line with the county’s baseline.

“From a strictly statistical perspective, I don’t see anything that’s different from any other year,” Brinks says.

In terms of full-year data, car accident statistics in Grand Traverse County have remained mostly steady over the past decade – and have actually declined slightly. Here's a quick look at total accidents and car accident deaths in Grand Traverse County from 2014 through now, courtesy of Brinks and the sheriff's office.

2014: 2,764 accidents, 7 deaths
2015: 2,484 accidents, 10 deaths
2016: 2,520 accidents, 13 deaths
2017: 2,635 accidents, 9 deaths
2018: 2,843 accidents, 4 deaths
2019: 2,311 accidents, 6 deaths
2020: 2,077 accidents, 2 deaths
2021: 1,964 accidents, 14 deaths
2022: 2,456 accidents, 11 deaths
2023: 2,075 accidents, 14 deaths

Brinks says the number of people injured in crashes has also remained relatively steady over the past decade, typically hovering between 250-400 each year.

As for the drop in the number of car accidents in 2020 and 2021, Brinks says COVID-19 was a major disruptor, as shelter-in-place orders, festival and event cancellations, and work-from-home policies changed normal traffic patterns.

“In 2020 and 2021, you will see a slight decrease in the number of accidents because there were fewer cars on the road,” he said. Ticker,

But based on national trends, COVID-19 has also changed the way people drive — something that could explain why there have been more traffic accidents in Grand Traverse County in the last three years than in the three years before.

“Why are American drivers so dangerous?” The New York Times Magazine An article published earlier this year asked why “after decades of declining fatality rates, dangerous driving has risen again in the United States”. The article linked those rising fatality rates to changes in driving habits that began in 2020, coinciding with the start of the pandemic. For example, looking at a rise in crashes in Nevada, article author Matthew Scherer wrote that “drivers were driving at greater speeds…and going through intersections with alarming frequency”; overall “seatbelt use had declined”; and “drunk-driving arrests had reached near historic highs.”

Some experts have linked the changes in driving habits to the fact that many people stayed at home due to Covid-19, so the roads were less crowded and drivers were emboldened to drive faster and more recklessly. But one source said in an interview that this is a very serious matter. The New York Times Magazine The article also reported that drivers were frustrated with the way the pandemic has turned their lives upside down — this frustration was manifesting in the form of aggressive driving, angry outbursts at pedestrians or other motorists, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and more.

Whatever the reason, Michigan has not been immune to national trends: Last summer, Michigan State Police reported that traffic fatalities in the state had increased by 15 percent in just four years, from 974 in 2018 to 1,123 in 2022. And while Grand Traverse County’s sample size is small, the county’s increase in car crash fatalities from the late 2010s to the early 2020s appears to align with the statewide shift.

Brinks believes the local fatality rate over the past few years could have been even higher if there weren’t a sustained effort to convert problematic intersections throughout the region into roundabouts.

“A lot of times there's no reason or logic to car accident deaths,” Brinks says. “But when we have intersections like 131 and 186, before we have a roundabout there, you can anticipate some trouble. You don't know when it's going to happen, but you know at some point there's going to be a fatal accident at an intersection like that. And since the roundabout was put in there in 2019, we haven't seen a fatal accident there. I know people have different opinions about roundabouts, but they're really good for the safety of our citizens traveling on our roads. They slow down traffic, separate traffic, and they're really good for the safety of our roads.”

With more roundabouts and other traffic calming measures in and around Traverse City, Brinks expects the number of crashes in the area to continue to decrease — and the number of fatalities to return to single digits, if not zero. However, no matter what, he says the public perception that there are more crashes may be simply because law enforcement agencies have done a better job of reporting those accidents worldwide.

“Central dispatch has gotten better at getting information out to people quickly,” says Brinks. “They're really good now about telling people, 'This road or intersection is closed, please take an alternate route.' Before, we might have called WTCM or somebody to get it on the radio. But we certainly didn't get information out as quickly as we do now. And the general public probably thought the situation was worse than it really was.”

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