NASHVILLE — Tennessee traffic fatalities declined sharply last year, reaching their lowest figure in 49 years.
As of early last week, 926 people have died in wrecks in the state. It’s the fewest since 811 in 1962.
Col. Tracy Trott of the Tennessee Highway Patrol credits drunken driving enforcement, increased seat belt use, educational safety programs in schools and other factors. But he still wishes more drivers and passengers would buckle up.
“It’s the simplest and most effective way to protect yourself on the road,” Trott said.
He called the 2011 figure “a great accomplishment.”
Until 2010, such figures had been declining. There were 1,211 in 2007, 1,043 in 2008 and 989 in 2009, then a spike to 1,030 in 2010. The deadliest year was 1,444 in 1973.
Last year, May was the deadliest month on state highways with 97 fatalities. January was the safest with 51.
“In May, the weather has turned good and people are out more,” Trott said. “We target May as a busy month.”
There was a major decline in motorcycle fatalities, from 137 in 2010 to 112 last year.
East Tennessee has led the way in cutting traffic deaths. Fatalities in Monroe County are down from 18 to 7, McMinn is down from 20 to 11, Campbell County is down from 21 to 12 and Sullivan County is down from 27 to 14.
Davidson County also has had a noticeable drop, from 75 to 66.
Adding to the state’s vulnerability for traffic deaths is Tennessee’s lengthy and widely used interstate system, which attracts out-of-state motorists. Interstates 75, 65 and 24 are main routes between much of the Midwest and points south of the state; I-40 is an east-west route connecting the two coasts; I-81 and I-181 cross Northeast Tennessee.
“If you’re going to travel in the Southeast, you almost have to go through Tennessee,” Trott said.
Tennessee will be getting about 50 more troopers in 2012 to join the force of 800. Tight budgets the past few years have restricted even more hiring.
“We could do better if we had the resources,” Trott said.