TAMPA — The highways and streets serving Hillsborough County grew more deadly in 2021.
The Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization said 255 people died in traffic crashes last year, making 2021 the deadliest ever on local roads.
It’s an average of almost five deaths per week and marks a 20-percent jump over the 212 fatalities recorded in 2020. It also surpasses, by 13 percent, the previous high of 226 deaths in 2016.
“We increased substantially in the one year. … Extraordinarily poor news,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp.
The data, presented on Wednesday to Hillsborough’s Transportation Planning Organization — elected and appointed officials sitting as transportation planners — came as the board attempted to set new safety goals for 2023.
As part of a federal requirement, state and local road planners must pick a specific target annually for highway accidents, with an aim to reduce the number each year. The most recent data, however, shows it’s an imprecise exercise. Hillsborough set a goal for 2021 of 190 fatalities, a number exceeded by more than a third.
On Wednesday, board members objected to a staff recommendation of setting a more modest goal of 253 fatalities for the current year.
“I don’t think the way to move forward is to keep lowering our bar,” said Commissioner Mariella Smith.
The suggested target was unacceptable, agreed Commissioner Kimberly Overman.
Instead, the board set its goal at 212 fatalities, the number from 2020.
The reasons for the spike in fatalities are numerous and include increased driving speeds and substance abuse during the pandemic, reduced seat-belt use and a presumption that overtaxed emergency workers may have had slower response times to accident scenes.
A pandemic-related rise in telework also allowed more trips to be made at off-peak hours, when drivers are not slowed by traffic congestion. It meant severe crashes occurred almost all hours.
Hillsborough’s fatal crash data showed: 92 percent occurred on roads with posted speed limits of at least 40 mph; 71 percent involved speeding or aggressive driving, and two-thirds of the people involved were younger than 35.
Dealing with speeding motorists is not a new dilemma. The Transportation Planning Organization approved a speed management plan in 2020 that identified its most dangerous road corridors including portions of Bloomingdale Avenue, U.S. 41, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Big Bend Road, Interstate 75 and Hillsborough Avenue.
Conversely, the data showed the number of people suffering serious but non-fatal injuries continued to decline in Hillsborough County. The numbers, reported in five-year rolling averages, showed 1,025 injuries in 2021. Five years earlier, that number stood at 1,618 serious injuries each year.
Board members agreed to a series of recommendations to try to improve road safety that ranged from supporting proposed state legislation permitting speed-detection cameras in school zones; seeking new federal grants for so-called complete street projects that improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, and focusing additional resources on the 50 most dangerous corridors in the county.