Despite a lower volume of traffic overall because of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 is turning out to be a noticeably deadly year on Arkansas roads.
There were at least 282 fatalities resulting from crashes on Arkansas roads in the first six months of the year, according to preliminary reports maintained by the Arkansas State Police.
That is a 16% increase over the first six months of 2019. If the second half of the year keeps up the same pace of traffic deaths, Arkansas is on track to record more than 560 fatalities in 2020, or nearly an 11% increase over the previous year.
With at least 70 deaths last month, June 2020 was the deadliest month in terms of fatalities on the road since June 2008, when 70 people were also killed, according to the Arkansas State Police reports.
The June 2020 total consists of 68 fatalities listed in the state police preliminary reports, as well as two fatalities in Pulaski County on June 30 -- one on Woodson Lateral Road and a second at a Jacksonville railroad crossing -- that have not yet been added to the state police list.
Much of the summer still lies ahead, a time when more people are traditionally on the roads because of travel and vacations, though it's unclear how the coronavirus outbreak will affect vacation schedules this year.
The high number of fatalities between January and June stands out when examined in light of the decline in overall traffic on Arkansas highways.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the volume of traffic on highways plunged beginning in March compared with the year before. Many interstate locations around the state saw declines in traffic in the range of 20%-35%. At some locations, traffic dropped up to 50%-70% over the year during the first week of April, according to data from the Arkansas Department of Transportation.
Traffic levels have yet to fully rebound in spite of the state's economic reopening, according to the Department of Transportation data, with levels in late May and early June remaining 10%-15% lower than the previous year.
According to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018 -- the most recent year for which data is available -- Arkansas had the sixth-highest rate of deaths per capita related to motor vehicle accidents when compared with other states. Mississippi ranked first, followed by Alabama, South Carolina, New Mexico and West Virginia.
Maj. Forrest Marks, the Arkansas Highway Patrol commander for the state's western region, said in an interview in late May that the agency saw a reduced total number of crashes from March 1 to May 29 this year, but more deaths compared with the previous year.
Arkansas State Police troopers worked 4,498 motor vehicle crashes during that time frame last year, compared with 3,364 this year, Marks said. Even so, deaths were up during those three months this year, with 84 fatalities compared with 79 the year before.
Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler on Thursday cautioned that the pace of traffic deaths could change as the remainder of the year plays out, calling the pattern "cyclical."
Sometimes, the first two quarters of a given year will go by with fewer crashes than the previous year, and then the number of crashes suddenly will spike later in the year without much explanation, Sadler said.
"So we try to look at it in a one-year package rather than try to break it up into quarters, because you get a better snapshot of what the trend is from year to year," Sadler said.
When confronted with the large number of multiple fatalities during individual crashes earlier this year, Highway Patrol officials generally saw an indicator of "speed being a leading contributor," Sadler said.
"Because with speed, you tend to see more fatalities out of a single crash," he added.
A spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Kathryn Henry, deferred comment to the Arkansas Highway Safety Office, saying that 2020 fatality rates from her agency had not yet been released.