JACKSON ― Jackson County roads became deadlier in 2022, state data shows.
While the number of crashes reported by police remained fairly constant over a five-year stretch, from 2018 to 2022, crashes resulting in deaths increased by 87% over that span, according to data recently released by the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning.
Until recently, the county averaged about 15 fatal crashes per year. Last year that number jumped with 28 crashes that killed 30 people.
Despite that substantial increase, local police say they haven’t noticed a change in driver behavior that accounts for more deaths on the road.
Instead, they chalked up last year’s crashes to drivers making the same mistakes they’ve always made ― drinking and driving, being in a rush, not looking twice, and giving in to the temptation to multitask behind the wheel.
Last year’s fatal crashes happened in 13 Jackson County townships, plus one within Jackson city limits, according to state data.
They happened on busy roads ― like the three-vehicle crash that killed a 55-year-old Ypsilanti man driving his 2015 Ford Fusion the wrong way on I-94.
And they happened in quiet rural areas, like the midnight crash in August on an unlit Rives Township road, when a 38-year-old man drifted off the pavement and crashed his pickup truck into a tree.
Police reports accompanying the data describe a driver flung from a motorcycle that crashed into a deer, a car going airborne and striking a utility pole, a driver suspected of drunk driving ejected from a rolling vehicle, another driver taking an entrance ramp too quickly and losing control of his vehicle, and other mishaps, surprises, and acts of recklessness that left 30 people dead.
How is a motorist to protect him or herself? Drive like conditions could change at any moment, said Emma Freeman, road patrol deputy with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.
As Freeman patrols county roads, she sees drivers making simple mistakes that could, in a moment, turn into a crash. Other times, she encounters drivers who decided to get behind the wheel while impaired, like the teenager who recently ran his vehicle into a house when he was high on marijuana.
Drunk- or drugged-drivers were responsible for 11 of the county’s 28 fatal crashes last year, according to state data.
County police also respond to many deer-involved crashes, Freeman said ― like the three fatal crashes last year involving collisions with deer.
Freeman has no unusual explanation for the uptick in crash fatalities. Instead, drivers should be alert for the same dangers that have always existed on the road, she said.
“What if that person runs through that red light?” she said during a recent shift, slowing as she approached an intersection. “We could be dead.”
Above: Emma Freeman, road patrol officer with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, radios dispatchers while on duty earlier this month. Like other officers, Freeman has not noticed a change in driver habits explaining a significant jump in fatal crashes in 2022.
DRINKING, DRUGGING, AND DRIVING
Between 2018 and 2022, crashes were most likely to involve drivers in the 25- to 44-year-old age bracket.
Drivers in their late 20s to early 40s were also most likely to be drinking while driving, with 85 drivers in that age group ― about half of all drunk drivers in 2022 crashes ― determined to have alcohol in their system.
Nearly a third of drivers recorded as under the influence registered a “super drunk” blood alcohol content more than twice the legal limit.
The 199 Jackson County crashes last year involving a driver under the influence of drugs or alcohol injured 47 people and killed 11, the highest number of impairment-related crash fatalities since at least 2018.
MOTORCYCLES AND DISTRACTED DRIVING
Nine fatal crashes last year ― and 46 crashes resulting in injury ― involved motorcycles.
In Napoleon Township, where another motorcycle malfunctioned and crashed earlier this month, killing its driver, officers haven’t noticed specific driver actions making crashes more fatal, said Matthew Peters, deputy chief of the Napoleon Township Police Department.
Crash types and causes, drunk driving citations, and other officer interactions with drivers showed no noticeable change last year over previous years, Peters reported. Last year’s fatal crashes in his jurisdiction were linked not to undue recklessness but to a deer in the road and, in another case, a driver simply overlooking an oncoming car.
The state’s new hands-free law that forbids most driver interaction with electronic devices should help prevent future crashes, Peters thinks. For now, his officers are mainly enforcing that law by stopping and educating drivers about the new rule, urging them to pull over to carry out necessary cell phone transactions.
Other distractions are not so easily outlawed. Officers often encounter drivers using both hands to eat, smoke, put on makeup, or comb their hair while checking it in a flip-down mirror, Peters said.
“I can’t imagine talking on the telephone is more distracting than eating a cheeseburger,” Peters said, acknowledging the unlikelihood of the state passing laws outlawing everything that could take a driver’s attention off of the road.
OTHER CRASH STATS
Nearly 8,000 drivers were involved in last year’s crashes, which killed 30 people, injured 1,036, and caused untold thousands of dollars in property damage.
In response to fatal crashes, police cited five drivers with failure to yield, four drivers with careless or negligent driving, and three each with driving too fast and reckless driving.
At least fifteen drivers involved in the county’s 28 fatal crashes did nothing wrong to cause the crash, police reported.
Pedestrian-involved crashes spiked in 2022, with 35 such crashes last year compared to 17 the previous year. Ten of those crashes took place in December, and three out of 35 included fatalities.
While crashes of all kinds happened at all times of the day, fatal crashes most often happened between 6 and 9 a.m. or, even more likely, between 6 and 9 p.m.
Two fatal crashes ― including one deer-involved crash ― happened between midnight and 3 a.m., hours that accounted for just under 5% of crashes.
More than half of people killed in 2022 crashes, and nearly a quarter of those with suspected serious injury, wore seatbelts or other safety restraints, police reported.
Of the two 18-to-24-year-olds killed in Jackson County crashes last year, neither were wearing a seatbelt.