The Mercury News proclaimed San Jose traffic deaths to be the “worst public-safety trend” of 2015. The year ended with 59 traffic accident fatalities, an increase of 35% from 2014.

The 2015 statistics represent San Jose’s highest traffic fatality rate in twenty years. Five of the deaths were caused by hit-and-run drivers. Traffic fatality victims included 23 pedestrians. Motorcyclist fatalities also hit a twenty year high.

It is too soon to know whether the average of five traffic deaths per month will continue in 2016. That appeared to be the case when a collision in San Jose's Cambrian district brought the 2016 death toll to eleven on March 4. Fortunately, the death rate seems to have slowed since then. A fatal hit-and-run on June 1 accounted for the 19th San Jose traffic death this year.

Public Safety: Crime versus Traffic Deaths

It is ironic that as San Jose reached a twenty year high in traffic deaths, the city’s homicide rate hit a five-year low. The Mercury News describes the “spike in roadway deaths” as “the most dramatic change in the public-safety profile of one of the nation's largest cities.”

With the steady decline in homicides, San Jose has reclaimed its status as one of the safest large cities in the nation. Crime rates have climbed a bit in recent years, but no more so than in other cities of comparable size.

Still, there is more to public safety than a reduced homicide rate. Individuals are twice as likely to be killed in a traffic accident as they are to be murdered. A policy manager for a statewide pedestrian advocacy group calls San Jose’s traffic fatality statistics “a public health crisis.”

Road Safety: What Can Be Done?

Have San Jose roads suddenly become unsafe? The traffic investigations unit of the San Jose police attribute the increased death toll to several factors:

  • Distracted driving, including the growing use of cellphones while driving. Drivers who are not watching the road are responsible for many of last year’s pedestrian deaths and for a significant percentage of intersection accidents.
  • Poor judgment. Too many drivers fail to make an accurate judgment of the distance and speed of approaching cars and motorcycles. They cross intersections or attempt to pass when they should exercise more patience. Pedestrians also misjudge the amount of time it will take to cross a road.
  • San Jose’s failure to adapt. More pedestrians and bicyclists are sharing city streets with drivers, but the city has been slow to respond to changing needs. More bike lanes and beacon-flashing crosswalks would reduce deaths in traffic-heavy corridors, particularly in the thoroughfares that account for half the city’s fatal traffic accidents: Monterey Highway, Senter Road, Branham Lane, and Hillsdale Avenue.
  • Valuing speed over safety. Drivers want to move through the city quickly, but speed must be balanced against safety. Traffic engineers recommend narrowing key roads and reducing speeds while widening bike lanes. Those ideas are popular in some communities (particularly among those who walk or bike to work) while commuters who drive to work often argue in favor of maintaining higher speed limits.
  • A decline in traffic enforcement. Only ten police officers make a full-time job of enforcing traffic laws, compared to forty just two years ago. Police suspect that drivers are more likely to disregard traffic safety laws when they know they are unlikely to receive tickets for violations.

Holding Dangerous Drivers Accountable

Traffic enforcement and changes in public policy can help prevent accidental deaths, but they both play a limited role. Careless drivers cause avoidable accidents no matter what steps the police and the city take to encourage drivers to comply with safety rules.

Wrongful death lawyers help surviving family members pursue justice when their loved ones die in a traffic accident. Wrongful death lawsuits also send a message. Drunk driving, driving while texting, falling asleep at the wheel, paying attention to anything other than the road, and other acts of negligence that cause an innocent victim’s death are unacceptable. By helping victims pursue wrongful death claims, San Jose wrongful death attorneys hope to raise public awareness of the public health crisis that dangerous drivers have created.