LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Heading into the holiday travel season, automobile crashes this year in Jefferson County and across Kentucky were at their highest levels in a decade, according to state data.

There had been roughly 146,860 collisions on the state’s highways, roads and streets as of last Tuesday – the most since at least 2005, preliminary figures show.

The increase comes as drivers are logging more miles traveled in Kentucky, the likely result of gas prices that have fallen below $2 per gallon. At the same time, police are attributing more crashes to distracted driving and cell phone use.

The statistics, based on accident reports submitted to Kentucky State Police by law enforcement agencies, echo a national trend of rising deaths in car crashes.

“This year we’re really seeing an increase in traffic fatalities,” said Chris Ralston, safety advisor and spokesman for AAA in Louisville. “Some of the things we’re looking at that are causes of that are the lower gas prices. There’s a lot more people on the road. They’re driving more miles.”

During the first half of the year, an estimated 16,225 people died in car crashes in the U.S., an 8.1 percent jump from the same period in 2014, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Kentucky, there had been 626 such crashes and 682 deaths through December 8 – the highest number since 2012.

A WDRB News analysis of state data also found:

  • Jefferson County has had 72 fatal crashes, up from 59 the year before. That’s still down from 84 in 2013.
  • The number of collisions involving cell phone use or other distractions rose in 2015 across the state to more than 8,000 – up 11 percent in the past five years.
  • In Louisville, about 1,650 wrecks involved distracted driving. That amounts to a roughly 28 percent jump since 2010.

Through the first nine months of the year, vehicle miles traveled in Kentucky were up about 2 percent from the same period last year, according to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Frank Goetzke, a professor in the University of Louisville’s department of urban and public affairs, said it’s possible that lower gas prices are enticing low-income drivers and young people to drive more, leading to more crashes involving those who drive infrequently.

“If you have young people, they’re the less experienced people so they’re more likely to be in crashes,” he said.

However, despite the increase in overall crashes and traffic deaths in the state, there have been fewer injury collisions this year. In fact, the number of those crashes – 22,310 – is at its lowest level in at least a decade.

The decline – both this year and in prior years – may be partially the result of technology such as in-car cameras and other features meant to prevent serious injury or death, said Eric R. Green, research engineer at the Kentucky Transportation Center at the University of Kentucky.

“A lot of advances have been made to automobiles to even help with severity, you know especially with airbags. So that’s possible too,” he said. “You might be seeing an effect of safer vehicles.”

Texting law tough to enforce

Changes to Kentucky law also have sought to penalize distracted drivers.

In early 2011, the state began cracking down on drivers who text while behind the wheel. At the same time, a companion law banned all drivers under 18 from holding a phone.

But nearly five years later, prosecutors across the state are finding it increasingly difficult to get convictions once drivers are charged with breaking those laws.

There have been 1,632 cases involving texting and cell phone violations as of Dec. 10, according to data from the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts. With several weeks left in the year, the number of cases is more than double the amount from three years ago.

But the 45 percent conviction rate statewide stands to fall for the third straight year, dropping from 50 percent in 2014, 63 percent in 2013 and 66 percent in 2012.

In Jefferson District Court, where most of the Louisville cases occur, only about 35 percent of the 387 charges have resulted in convictions this year, the data shows.

To Doug Sweeney, Audubon Park’s police chief, distracted driving has become an “epidemic.”

Sweeney, the retired traffic commander at Louisville Metro Police Department, said the law has become difficult to enforce and sometimes requires an officer to get close enough to clearly see a driver’s actions.

The law only addresses drivers who send and receive text messages, failing to take into account a range of other smartphone uses such as checking social media accounts, playing podcasts and using map applications.

LMPD Officer Ronald Fey said he has observed more multitasking drivers.

“If someone is holding their cellphone as they’re driving, even if they’re using the map function, again it’s a distraction and it is taking away from their attention to the roadway, which is also contributing to the increase in the collisions that we’re seeing,” he said.

Some state lawmakers have pushed for a full ban on cell phone use while driving. Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, co-sponsored a bill in 2015 that would have outlawed all phones except those with hands-free functions.

The measure never moved out of a House committee. In an interview, Burch said he believes the law needs to be strengthened but doubts that lawmakers would support it.

“It was hard to pass that law the last time we did it because a lot of legislators text while they’re driving,” he said. “There has to be pressure coming from the individual districts.”

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