BY THE NUMBERS:
* 2012 traffic fatalities, state: 1,023
* 2013 traffic fatalities, state (projected): 782
* 2012 traffic fatalities, Chattanooga district: 140
* 2013 traffic fatalities, Chattanooga district (projected): 87
* Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol
Fewer people are dying on the roads these days.
According to the latest figures from the Tennessee Highway Patrol, 245 drivers and passengers have died from car crashes so far this year. At this time last year, 295 people had died. THP officials have theories about what is -- and what isn't -- happening on the roads this year. But they are just that: theories.
At this rate, 771 people will die in car crashes in Tennessee by the end of the year. Last year, 1,021 people died. In fact, if this pace keeps up, this year will be the tamest one since 1961.
A lot of credit falls on drivers here in the Southeast part of the state. From last year to this year, no place has seen a greater drop off than the Chattanooga District, which stretches to Coffee County in the west, Polk County in the east and Rhea County in the north.
So far, 28 people have died from car crashes here. That's down from 47 people at this time in 2012.
No other area comes close. The next sharpest fall in fatalities from 2012 to this year can be found in the Nashville, Memphis and Fall Branch Districts. Each has seen 11 fewer deaths.
So what's happening here? Lt. John Harmon of the Chattanooga District said troopers are flooding areas where fatalities spike. If deaths are up one week in a rural county that only has two troopers, for example, 10 troopers from nearby counties will come in for an eight- or 12-hour shift.
The THP has tried to crack down on DUIs this year, Harmon said. And seatbelt violations, too. Compared to 2012,
DUI arrests in the Chattanooga District through this week were up 15 percent so far for the year. Tickets for seat belt violations have jumped 67 percent.
And then there are the education programs. Twice each month, the THP does a "Stay Alive on 75" campaign to promote safe driving.
This dropoff, of course, is happening at a time when people drive more. Way more. During 2001-11, the latest year for which data is available, people drove 70 billion miles per year on Tennessee highways. Back in 1961, people drove about 15 billion miles. And, cars and trucks are built with far more safety features than they were even 10 years ago.
Why the dramatic fall? Which strategies work best?
It's difficult to know. An increase in DUI arrests is good because fewer drunken drivers are on the road. But a drop in arrests also can be good, Harmon said, because maybe that means fewer people are driving drunk in the first place. This isn't a science.
And of course, the drop off could be random. Five years from now, people could look at 2013 as an outlier, the weird year when for some unknown reason fewer people died.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.