CANTON, Ohio — There has been a noticeable decrease in the number of cars on Ohio roadways during the pandemic, but risky behaviors remain a major concern.
Traffic volume was down more than 15% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to state statistics, but the number of drunk driving fatalities rose.
According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, there were 586 deadly crashes in which drivers were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There were 529 deadly OVI crashes in 2019.
In Stark County, 17 of 30 fatal 2020 accidents-- or roughly 57%-- involved an impaired driver, a 14 percent increase from the prior year.
The spike was even more dramatic in Summit County, which saw 25 fatal drunk driving crashes in 2020, compared to 10 in 2019.
Suzanne Snyder, director of Stark County Safe Communities Coalition, said the statistics are concerning.
"Honestly, it's saddening for me. It hurts my heart to see more families and see this going up and trying to figure out what's going on," Snyder said.
Law enforcement officials believe one possible reason for the spike revolves around people struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Is it coping mechanisms? People are stressed. They're losing their jobs. They're not sure what's going to happen. Everything changes from day-to-day. Are they using substances to cope?" Snyder said.
Levi Garrison lost his brother Michael Garrison, 22, in an October 2017 drunk driving accident.
"When you find out that you lost someone to someone under the influence, it just crumbles you," Garrison said.
Michael was a passenger in a car driven by his friend who was drunk. The driver crashed on I-77 South in Canton and survived. Michael died at a hospital.
"We still don't know why he would have got in the car that night with him. He wasn't the one to normally do that," Levi Garrison said.
The driver is currently serving a prison sentence of seven years.
Snyder said her organization is looking at many ideas geared towards reducing the the number of crashes, including increasing traffic blitzes among law enforcement officers, and offering more help to people through mental health and addiction groups.
"Where are we seeing the crashes? Where do we need to increase enforcement? Where can we combine those enforcement and education efforts?" Snyder said.
In the meantime, Levi said he will appeal to anyone who will listen and urge them not to take chances.
"Please don't drink and drive. It's not worth it," he said. "It's not worth ruining two families."
See OVI crash data for other Northeast Ohio counties below. See more traffic statistics from the OSHP here.