Felony traffic crimes continue to skyrocket in King County

Sep 19, 2023, 5:00 AM

Gorst road rage...

Washington state patrol is on the scene of a suspected road rage incident in Kitsap County Monday afternoon that ended with a man shot in the head. (Trooper Katherine Weatherwax/Twitter)

(Trooper Katherine Weatherwax/Twitter)

Washington state is coming off back-to-back record years for fatal crashes, and the aggressive and risky behavior behind the wheel isn’t letting up.

The numbers are startling: 745 people were killed on Washington roads in 2022.

There is so much aggressive driving, so much impairment, and so much disregard behind the wheel that the King County Felony Traffic Unit currently has 147 open cases. These are cases where a person has been charged and they are awaiting the outcome of their criminal case.

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Compared to pre-COVID-19 averages, that’s about 80 more open cases now than in 2019, an increase of 124%. These are vehicular homicides, vehicular assaults, felony DUI and hit-and-runs that end in death.

The chair of the unit, Amy Freedheim, said the numbers skyrocketed as soon as the COVID shutdown happened in early 2020.

“We started to see an increase on the roads with excessive speed cases, and when I say excessive speed, I’m talking about people who are driving more than 100 miles per hour,” Freedheim said.

And the thinking was that this would all go back to normal when the post-pandemic traffic returned.

“It’s a huge uptick that continues to rise,” Freedheim said. “I mean, we keep saying, ‘Well, surely it’s got to level out,’  and it’s not. It’s continuing to rise.”

The graph shows the list of ongoing cases handled by the Felony Traffic Unit (vehicular homicides, vehicular homicides, hit and run deaths and felony DUIs). The green line is the pre-pandemic average caseload. (Photo from King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office)

We all see it. Our driving, on the whole, has gotten a lot worse, especially with the dangerous lane changes and the speed.

“You feel that anecdotally when you’re driving on the road, people are whipping by you and whipping around,” Freedheim said. “We see more aggressive driving, and when you are faster and you crash, you have more energy. You’re going to cause more damage. You’re gonna kill. You’re gonna maim.”

The State’s police pursuit law needs to be factored into these numbers as well. Some people still feel that they can speed away from the police, and the increase in open cases has followed that decision.

What’s the biggest factor in general? Impairment. Freedheim said cannabis is just as impairing as alcohol, and combining them is even worse.

“We see a lot more impairment on the roadway,” Freedheim said. “About 60% of our cases involve impairment, so we’re still seeing alcohol impairment, but we are also seeing a lot more poly-drug use and poly-drug impairment.”

Adam Eucker is a King County Deputy prosecutor in this unit. It’s his job to get justice for those impacted by these cases.

“I can only imagine how difficult it is for those people, the families of victims, to have to go through that,” Eucker said. “It is very challenging.”

How do we turn the tide on this?

Freedheim said road design can help, as well as lowering the blood-alcohol limit to 0.05%. ‘Your speed is’ signs are also helpful.

But the biggest change they can implement is a message for drivers.

“Slow down,” Freedheim said. “That is the number one thing that they should be doing. Slow down, it gives you more time to prepare for an emergency. It gives you less energy should there be a crash, slow down.”

And there is no excuse to get behind the wheel impaired.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.


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Felony traffic crimes continue to skyrocket in King County