Has Nantucket had more car accidents than ever this year?
That’s the question many have been asking after a series of significant wrecks on the island over the summer and fall.
To answer that question, Nantucket Current filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for 10 years worth of data on motor vehicle accidents on the island.
What we found came as a bit of a surprise.
The number of car accidents on Nantucket in 2022 is actually down sharply compared to previous years, and is on pace to decline by nearly 50 percent compared to the peak year of 2016, when police recorded a high of 445 crashes.
Through Nov. 10th, the Nantucket Police Department had logged just 216 crashes so far for 2022.
But we also submitted a FOIA request for the number of accidents that required a tow truck and/or heavy rescue response from the Nantucket Fire Department to better assess the number of significant accidents over that same 10 year span.
That data shows that through 10 months, 2022 is on pace to be one of the biggest years for significant wrecks over the past decade, if not the biggest. So far this year there have been 70 accidents that required a tow truck at the scene, and 15 that required heavy rescue response. The 10-year peak for those stats is 76 tows (in 2013) and 16 heavy rescue operations (in 2014 and 2020).
The Nantucket Fire Department’s heavy rescue apparatus is dispatched when there are significant motor vehicle accidents. For example, when a driver or passenger needs to be extricated or vehicle fluids are leaking, as well as incidents when a tow truck has to flip an overturned car, or when airbags are deployed.
We asked Nantucket Police Department Lt. Angus MacVicar about the numbers we obtained and his impression of what’s happening with regards to accidents on Nantucket. MacVicar said he wasn’t surprised that there had been a drastic decline in the overall number of motor vehicle accidents. While it may seem counterintuitive, MacVicar said it's due to the fact that there’s more people, more cars, and more traffic on Nantucket than there was 10 years ago. That means cars are moving slower due to increased congestion, thus reducing the number of accidents.
“The biggest contributor (to accidents) is speed,” MacVicar said. “Cars don’t go as fast as they did before, 10 years ago, you physically can’t go as fast. With the traffic on Old South Road, Surfside Road, Pleasant Street and Sparks Avenue - roads notorious for having accidents - you can’t go fast enough to not stay in control. The sheer volume of vehicles and traffic is the reason there’s not as many accidents. Ten years ago, everyone was flying around in the middle of the day and an accident would happen. Now you physically can’t go fast enough to get in an accident.”
But wouldn’t more people and more cars driving on the road inevitably result in more accidents, whether they be fender benders or otherwise?
“No,” MacVicar said. “If you can control the speed, you can control your accidents.”
MacVicar also questioned the data related to the number of tow truck responses, stating his department’s records system and data entry may not have been as accurate years ago as it is today (meaning he believes there were more significant crashes in years past that were not logged as such).
So what has prompted the questions about Nantucket having more car accidents than ever this year?
“I would say accuracy in reporting,” MacVicar said.
While the number of significant accidents on island roads is trending up, Nantucket has managed to avoid a motor vehicle accident fatality for several years running. MacVicar couldn't recall the last one, but it may have been the fatal moped accident on Madaket Road in September 2018.
Statewide, the number of significant accidents also appears to be on the rise. There were more fatal accidents in Massachusetts in 2021 than in any year since at least 2009, according to the state Highway Safety Division, with 390 crash deaths.
The island's data - which shows overall crashes declining but severe accidents on the rise - also aligns with what's happening nationwide. For 2019-20, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported a 6.8 percent increase in the number of motor vehicle accident fatalities (38,824 deaths in 2020), but a 22 percent decline in the number of non-fatal crashes (5.2 million in 2020). However, the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, may have impacted the most recent year of statistics).