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One City's Quest to Rein in Reckless Driving

City and state leaders in the Milwaukee area are addressing a spike in reckless driving in a variety of ways, from increasing penalties to redesigning streets. The city has a goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2037.

Two crashed cars in Milwaukee.
Since the pandemic, crashes have been frequent occurrences on Milwaukee's wide, flat, straight streets. (David Kidd/Governing)
In Brief:
  • Reckless driving spiked during the pandemic, creating a challenge for state and local lawmakers.

  • Cities such as Milwaukee are redesigning streets to prevent crashes from happening.

  • Some state lawmakers emphasize law enforcement to counter the rise in traffic violence.

  • Jordan Morales moved to Milwaukee in 2018, just in time to see the problem of reckless driving go from bad to worse. The northwest quadrant of the city, where Morales lives, has some of the most crash-prone corridors in Milwaukee. Two state roads that intersect there, Capitol Drive and Fond du Lac Avenue, are listed among the high-injury networks for pedestrians, bikers and motorists. Drivers in the area were so “lawless and chaotic,” especially after the pandemic began, Morales says, that “I didn’t feel comfortable letting my kids play outside in the front yard."

    Reckless driving spiked in many places around the country during the pandemic and a decadeslong decline in annual traffic deaths in the U.S suddenly reversed. More pedestrians were killed on the streets in 2022 than any other year in the previous four decades. The reasons for the increase in deaths and serious injuries are varied, including the growing size and weight of American cars and the changing demographics of U.S. suburbs. But one reason is also an increase in bad driving. Researchers have attributed this to a number of factors, including open, unclogged roads in the early days of the pandemic, more substance abuse and greater amounts of cellphone distraction.

    State and local leaders are looking for ways to make streets safer, but they don’t always see eye to eye on the right approach. Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson has prioritized a Vision Zero program focused on re-engineering city streets to slow down cars at key intersections and carve out safe spaces for bikers and pedestrians.

    State lawmakers, by contrast, are pursuing a punitive approach directed at drivers themselves. The Wisconsin Legislature passed two bills last year increasing penalties for reckless driving and carjacking, and lawmakers are pushing this session to raise penalties for drivers who injure or kill people in the act of fleeing from police.

    Meanwhile, the city has asked the state for permission to install speed cameras that could automate enforcement in certain areas — something the state Legislature has so far declined to do. “For us,” says Mayor Johnson, “it’s an all-of-the-above approach.”

    A Rise in Unsafe Driving

    Lots of driving behaviors can be considered reckless, ranging in severity from the commonplace to the outrageous: driving on a lack of sleep, texting while driving, talking on the phone while driving, speeding a little bit — or speeding a lot — passing on the right, failing to use a turn signal, running a red light, driving high, driving drunk, stealing a car, fleeing from police and more. Any of those behaviors can lead to catastrophe in the wrong circumstances.

    Data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggest that people may have been wearing seat belts less and drinking more in the months after the pandemic began, correlating with increased traffic fatalities. Distracted driving is more complicated to track, but NHTSA data suggests that at least 3,300 people died in crashes involving distracted driving in 2022. Deaths related to speeding also reached a 14-year high that year, according to the agency.

    Why were drivers more reckless in the early days of the pandemic? One explanation is that the roads were emptier. It’s easier and more tempting to speed on open roads, and some have argued that a decline in congestion led to more opportunities for speeding — and therefore more risky conditions on the roads.

    Some researchers have begun framing the kinetic energy created by speeding vehicles as a pathogen that causes harm when it’s released during collisions. The faster a vehicle is traveling, the more likely it is to kill someone it comes in contact with, especially if that person is not inside of another car. “Operating speed is really the key factor,” says Seth LaJeunesse, a researcher at the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center.

    Enforcing Laws

    Some say the increase in reckless behavior is part of a broader social phenomenon. “Reckless driving is just out of control in the greater Milwaukee area,” says Wisconsin state Rep. Robert Donovan. “In my estimation it’s more a symptom of a larger issue: A sense of lawlessness that’s permeated the city and led to huge rises in crime in a lot of different categories.”

    Donovan, a Republican who served on the Milwaukee Common Council for 20 years and ran against Johnson for mayor in 2022, puts the blame partly on low police morale and a decline in enforcement of traffic laws, but also on lenient judges and district attorneys. He says he is a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that cracking down on small legal infractions can promote public safety. He once shared a few beers with George L. Kelling, the native Milwaukeean who developed the theory.

    The best way to get hold on the problem, he says, is to set the right penalties and consistently punish the worst offenders. “These laws are only as good as how much they’re enforced and how much they’re prosecuted and punished,” Donovan says.

    At the same time, Donovan says he’s not a proponent of automating speed enforcement using cameras. “The problems that are being generated in Milwaukee are being generated by a relatively small number when you compare it to the overall population, and those are the individuals we need to focus on,” he says.

    The city and state have a shared interest in making the streets safer, even if they don’t agree on every approach to the problem, Donovan says. He notes that he isn’t totally opposed to the city’s approach, which emphasizes safer street design, but doesn’t think it’s necessary in most cases. “In my opinion there’s nothing wrong with the engineering of Milwaukee’s roadways as long as you’re driving appropriately,” Donovan says.
    Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson
    As mayor, Cavalier Johnson has emphasized street-design changes to make Milwaukee driving safer. (David Kidd/Governing)
    David KIDD

    Making Safer Streets

    Milwaukee has pursued a range of strategies to reduce traffic violence. The Milwaukee Police Department recently developed a Traffic Safety Unit that responds to crash data and residents’ complaints about reckless driving with high-visibility enforcement meant to deter future incidents. The unit has also increased citations for “reckless driving” as a stand-alone offense, though the number of overall driving citations has fluctuated over the last few years.

    Penalizing dangerous drivers is a popular stance, Johnson says. “People generally in Milwaukee will say that when somebody does something recklessly behind the wheel, they want justice,” he says.

    Enforcement can only capture a fraction of the total violations, especially when it’s carried out by a limited police force with other priorities, and the deterrent effects of traffic penalties vary.

    The city is also redesigning streets to prevent crashes from happening in the first place. It has deployed speed humps on fast-moving streets and replaced some dangerous intersections with roundabouts, which force drivers to slow down and reduce the likelihood of the most dangerous types of collisions. It’s also building more protected bike lanes.

    The city is focusing those projects in areas with lots of collisions, and in some instances prioritizing low-income communities and communities of color to account for disparities in traffic-related injuries and deaths. “The public wants the city making interventions that are addressing this significant safety issue and we take that charge from the public very seriously,” says Milwaukee City Engineer Kevin Muhs.

    Milwaukee has set a Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2037. That, of course, is aspirational, like all other Vision Zero goals. The city is currently collecting public input for a Vision Zero plan and expects to release a draft this spring.

    Meanwhile, the reckless-driving spike may have plateaued. Traffic deaths in Milwaukee are still substantially higher than they were before the pandemic, but the number of crashes and car thefts has begun trending downward again.

    Residents including Morales see reasons for hope. He says it would be great if the cops would crack down on every instance of reckless driving, and would also like to see the state allow speed cameras as a “force multiplier” for the police.

    But the city is focusing on the areas it has the most control over, which is the engineering of the streets. In the last few years, Morales says parts of his neighborhood have been “transformed” with curb bumpouts and roundabouts, and speed humps on the street where his kids now go out to play. “We’re making big progress in the city,” he says. “It’s looking up.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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