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Police use data to predict fatal-crash hot spots

New Hampshire Sunday News

May 24. 2014 9:06PM
From left, Col. Robert Quinn, director of New Hampshire State Police, and Roberta Bourque, a data analyst for the state police, listen to a point made by Lt. Matthew Shapiro, commander of special services/highway safety at a meeting of the Fatal Crash Review Committee. 

From left, Howard Hedegard, head of the New Hampshire Traffic Safety Institute, wears a "BCKL UP" T-shirt to a meeting of the state's Fatal Crash Review Committee, as he talks about teen driving safety with William Oldenburg from the state Department of Transporation and Pete McNamara, president of the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association.

It's not the youngest drivers, late-night hours or interstate highways that are responsible for most fatal crashes in New Hampshire.

Instead, statistics show that you're most likely to die in a crash if you're driving on a state or local road during the evening commute. And if you're driving impaired, distracted or too fast, your chances go way up.

For years, safety officials have been compiling data about the causes and circumstances of motor vehicle crashes. Now a state Fatal Crash Review Committee is mining that data to try to prevent deaths on the roadways.

The committee, which includes law enforcement, transportation, highway safety, education and industry representatives, met recently to get ready for the summer driving season. The goal, said Col. Robert Quinn, New Hampshire State Police director, is to "make evidence-based conclusions and decisions as to how we deploy resources."

Lt. Matthew Shapiro, commander of special services/highway safety for the state police, said one pattern is clear in nearly all areas of the state. His message to police departments large and small: "If you have short resources to deploy, the best (time)that you can deploy them and have the greatest effect is in the afternoon and evening commute."

It's no surprise that high-volume state highways see high numbers of fatal crashes. That includes Routes 101, 125, 4, 12 and 16.

William Oldenburg, administrator of the Bureau of Highway Design at the Department of Transportation, is on the review committee. He said DOT engineers are taking a more pro-active approach to roadway safety these days, installing more rumble strips to stop center-lane encroachment and median barriers to prevent crossover crashes.

After DOT put center-line rumble strips in the stretch of Routes 202/9 in Hillsborough and Hopkinton that was known as "Death Alley," the incidence of crashes was cut in half, Shapiro said. "It made an unbelievable difference,'' he said.

Now, Oldenburg said, "we're not looking at spot locations; we're looking at entire roadway corridors."

Rumble strips have been installed on Route 16, Route 101 in Milford and Route 111 in Hudson and Hampstead. And the DOT has had requests from police in Lee, Brentwood and Epping to put them on Route 125, he said.

The top causes of fatal crashes in New Hampshire are impairment, distraction and speed. And while arrests for drunken driving are down, arrests for impaired driving involving drugs, especially prescription drugs, are rising fast, Shapiro said.

Jim Wilson, director of the Division of Enforcement & Licensing at the state Liquor Commission, is also on the committee. He said national statistics show that half of all drivers arrested for impaired driving were coming from licensed bars or restaurants.

"So that's obviously a huge concern for us," he said.

For about five years, his division has been collecting "place of last drink" information in impaired-driving crashes, Wilson said. By combining that with sobriety checkpoint data from police, the state can focus on problem licensees, he said.

"We need to take a data-driven approach to our enforcement efforts," he said.

Roberta Bourque, who compiles and analyzes data for the Department of Safety, said most alcohol-related fatal crashes involve drivers in their mid-30s to mid-40s, but she's noticed that drivers ordered to install ignition-interlock devices after a DWI conviction tend to be in their 20s.

"Perhaps because we're having that intervention now, we won't see that same tragedy later in life," Bourque said.

Quinn said he plans to distribute data about crash locations and times to troop commanders so they can target their efforts this summer. "Let's just be where the problem is," he said.

Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate, incoming president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, also plans to distribute the data to chiefs across the state. And he welcomed the DOT's efforts to add more safety features to roads.

In the western part of the state, the problem areas include Route 12 in Winchester and Route 9 in Stoddard, Shapiro said. In the capital region, it's on Interstate 93 in Concord and Canterbury.

For State Police Troop A in Epping, the worst spots are Portsmouth, Candia and Barrington. There were 11 fatal crashes on Route 101 from 2010 to 2013 and nine on Interstate 95.

In the Lakes Region, Laconia and Ossipee had the most fatal crashes in that period, while farther north, Campton had the most.

Most fatal crashes in Hillsborough County were in Manchester, Merrimack and Nashua; there were nine on I-93 from 2010 to 2013 and seven each on the Everett Turnpike and Interstate 293.

"If you're short of resources, this is a pretty good indicator of where you should be working," Shapiro said.

The long, cold winter may have given safety officials some breathing room this year. There have been 22 fatal crashes so far, compared with 33 in the same period of 2013.

With warmer weather finally here, state police plan to boost their "high-visibility" enforcement efforts, with extra cruisers and aircraft surveillance on highways to catch speeders.

Quinn said such efforts reach beyond the number of tickets given out.

"If we stop 85 people who get summonses and warnings, we might have 10,000 that go through and see it, and it has a lasting effect," he said. "It slows them down."

Meanwhile, with another Bike Week approaching, officials hope to repeat the success of last year. Police took a different approach, Quinn said, putting more cruisers on the roads.

"For years, we were standing in the center of town waiting for something to happen, when several miles out, people were dying," he said. "So now we place some people out there running radar and visibility."

It seemed to work. There was just one fatality during Bike Week last year, he said.

Shapiro said law enforcement alone can't prevent all fatal crashes. That's why the review committee has enlisted a variety of stakeholders, including the New Hampshire Auto Dealers Association, to get the safety message out.

"We all have to be working together," Shapiro said. "We all have to be rowing in the same direction."

There is no better cause, Quinn said: "We're just trying to prevent some family from going through one of these awful events."

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