published Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Traffic fatalities mark highs in Bradley, Franklin

COUNTY FATALITIES

According to Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security records, 140 people died in 2012 across the state patrol's 12-county Chattanooga District. That's up from 117 in 2011.

COUNTY // 2011 // 2012 // // CHANGE

Bledsoe // 3 // 4 // // +1

Bradley // 11 // 24 // // +13

Coffee // 16 // 12 // // -4

Franklin // 2 // 12 // // +10

Grundy // 10 // 4 // // -6

Hamilton // 36 // 38 // // +2

Marion // 13 // 9 // // -4

McMinn // 11 // 14 // // +3

Meigs // 1 // 7 // // +6

Polk // 5 // 7 // // +2

Rhea // 5 // 7 // // +2

Sequatchie // 4 // 2 // // -2

TOTAL // 117 // 140 // // +23

Source: Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security

The number of traffic fatalities in Bradley and Franklin counties set high marks in 2012 that will trigger increased state and local enforcement there and across the region, officials said.

Bradley County officials say state figures showing 24 people died in 22 accidents in 2012 are the most in recent memory, at least since accurate records started being kept in 1994.

"Fatal accidents are up 109 percent," Bradley County Sheriff's Office Capt. W.G. Campbell said Friday. "What we're seeing here is a vigilance problem."

Distracted driving, speeding and drivers who don't pay close enough attention to other drivers are likely factors in at least part of the increase in Bradley, Campbell said.

Bradley's high mark until 2012 was in 2002 when 23 people lost their lives in car crashes, he said.

About three counties to the west in Franklin County, where fatalities jumped in one year from two to 12, Sheriff Tim Fuller believes impaired drivers remain at the heart of the problem.

"I think eight or nine of the ones we've had were alcohol related," Fuller said. "The alcohol concerns me more than anything."

A total of 1,018 people died on Tennessee roads in 2012, compared with 937 in 2011, records show.

State figures show statewide traffic deaths increased in 47 of the state's 95 counties, stayed even in 12 counties and decreased in 36 counties. More of the people who were killed were not wearing their safety belts -- 417 in 2012 compared with 374 in 2011.

Traffic deaths increased in eight of the 12 counties in Chattanooga's district -- Bledsoe, Bradley, Franklin, Hamilton, McMinn, Meigs, Polk and Rhea -- while the number of fatalities dropped in Coffee, Grundy, Marion and Sequatchie counties, records show. The Chattanooga District ranked fourth in traffic deaths among the state's eight state patrol districts. District ranks did not change from 2011 to 2012.

THP Lt. John Harmon said the increase in 2012 might look a little more dramatic in some areas than it really is.

"Tennessee had a dramatic decrease in 2011," Harmon said, but the number of fatalities across the district and state might not be as bad as some past years' tallies.

Statewide, troopers know of "no rhyme or reason" for the increase in 2012 other than simple coincidence and a possible rebound from an exceptionally low-fatality year, he said.

"Last year, we had a trooper working within a half mile of where a fatality happened," he said.

One factor in some deadly crashes is an easy fix, Harmon said, because many of the people killed in 2012 might have lived if they had been wearing their seat belts.

"In the whole Chattanooga district, over 50 percent of the people killed were not wearing their seat belts," he said.

State traffic enforcement is "data driven," he said. "That means we're looking at our crash data and we're trying our best to focus our enforcement in those areas. We're moving manpower and resources where problems are occurring, but that's a fluid situation."

Harmon said troopers focused on rural areas more last year, and this year they could begin targeting urban areas more often.

Campbell in Bradley and Fuller in Franklin said they'll focus on more education on driving safety in the coming year. In Franklin, officials will increase drunken driving enforcement, while in Bradley officials will boost efforts to curb distracted driving and speeding, they said.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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