LAS VEGAS (KSNV) — A team of researchers at UNLV's medical school is working with a decade's worth of data to determine causes and possible solutions to the deadly roads across Nevada.
There were 349 deaths on Nevada roads in 2021, according to the website zerofatalitiesnv.com, part of the Nevada Departments of Public Safety & Transportation.
The Traffic Safety Research Group at UNLV's Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine is spearheading the research with the new dataset, operating with grant money from government organizations. The researchers said they've discovered alarming trends.
Factors such as failure to obey traffic signals, speeding, distracted driving, and impaired driving remain primary reasons for the number of injuries and deaths reported throughout the state.
"When we look at death data, we're not really seeing any decreases," said Dr. Deborah Kuhls, a trauma critical care surgeon in Las Vegas for 23 years and Assistant Dean for Research at the Kircher Korean School of Medicine at UNLV.
As a trauma surgeon, Dr. Kuhls has seen some of the worst of the worst when it comes to car crashes. She said one of her most difficult memories was when a family traveling highway speeds crashed. Some of the kids and one of the adults weren't wearing seatbelts.
"As a result of that crash, some of the surviving children lost a parent. And the surviving parent was going to be a single parent to a smaller family because some of the children were killed," Kuhls recounted. "If they were able to just back up time, they would have done things just very, very differently."
According to Kuhls and her team's research, 32% of Nevada's traffic fatalities were associated with red-light running. 52% of the state's traffic citations were for speeding, with 34% of those for drivers going over the state's maximum speed limit of 80 miles per hour.
Distracted driving, which includes cell phone use, drivers illegally viewing a TV receiver, and inattentive driving, accounted for 5% of Nevada's total traffic citations. And driving under the influence remained a big concern, Kuhls said.
"This is within the control of all of us. We all have tight schedules. We have a lot to do," Kuhls said. "But it might be better to be a few minutes late than not to arrive at all. And so I think that's one thing that people can really change in their everyday lives."
Nevada is one of a handful of states that does not have a primary seatbelt law, meaning drivers can't be pulled over simply for not wearing a seatbelt if an officer spots it.
There have been many attempts through the legislature there, and again, this is something that we are persistently looking at," she said. "Because we know that people who are not restrained have a much greater chance of dying and being severely injured. And so that's one thing our state could do would be to become a primary seatbelt law state."
Kuhls also noted there appeared to be an increase in speeding and citations for drivers in school zones. She worried about the dangers for children and pedestrians in these areas, adding that law enforcement can't be present in all school zones all of the time.
She pointed to a bill introduced in the legislature (AB93) that would allow for enforcement cameras in school zones, though the legislation had yet to have a hearing scheduled.
She also said red light cameras could deter those crashes from occurring, but they've been banned in Nevada since 1999. Opponents have argued they infringe on civil liberties since there's no actual witness or officer serving the citation.
Kuhls said she was also surprised by the data to see what she referred to as a bimodal data set for pedestrian deaths and injuries, with the younger and older populations of the state more adversely impacted.
"I don't think that in our state, we really understood that there were two groups," she said. "The older group may have some mobility issues, right? And so they require more time to get across an intersection. That the younger group, they're mobile, but they may be distracted and not really paying attention, being on their cell phone, texting, and so forth. So we really need different interventions."
The researchers recommended more outreach, especially to more retirement homes and schools, to educate those groups about their increased dangers as pedestrians.
Due to her line of work and research, Kuhls said on a personal level, she avoids driving on the highways now. Instead, she opts to take side streets for a safer experience, she said.
"If we don't act responsibly, we could injure or kill someone very, very, very easily," she said. "And that changes lives forever. The drivers who hit people, I mean, most of them are just, they're devastated. And the injured people, of course, their lives are changed forever."
To learn more about their research, Kuhls encouraged people to sign up for their quarterly newsletter with additional findings.