Chattanooga traffic deaths rise; alcohol figured in half of fatalities

Chattanooga traffic deaths rise; alcohol figured in half of fatalities

January 21st, 2014 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Traffic fatalities decreased across the state in 2013, but Chattanooga experienced a sharp increase -- particularly in alcohol-related traffic deaths.

Of the 28 traffic fatalities in Chattanooga, half were alcohol related, records show. That's twice the rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities statewide and an increase from nine such deaths out of 22 total in 2012.

As a result, Chattanooga Police Department's Traffic Unit will step up enforcement.

"We're going to be increasing the bar checks. We're going to be holding bars accountable if they are serving people to the point of intoxication," said Chattanooga Traffic Sgt. David Gibb.

In 2012, the traffic unit made 304 DUI arrests. That declined to 248 DUI arrests in 2013. However, those numbers are expected to increase this year.

In the past few months, the traffic unit has increased its number of officers from 10 to 15 -- including adding two more officers and a sergeant to what was a two-officer DUI unit.

Carol Ronis, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said nationwide on average one-third of fatalities are alcohol-related.

She hopes alcohol-related fatalities will decrease since a state law went into effect in July requiring anyone convicted of DUI to have ignition interlocks installed in their vehicles. The ignition interlocks are equipped with cameras to ensure the driver is the one taking the breath test, Ronis said.

Statewide, Tennessee had a 2 percent decrease in overall traffic fatalities going from 1,015 victims in 2012 to 995 in 2013, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety, Office of Research, Statistics and Analysis.

Stuffed animals and a cross marks the spot where 16-year-old Miracle McDowell died in a car crash near the 2900 block of Amnicola Highway last year. Traffic fatalities increased in the city of Chattanooga during 2013.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Ronis said of the 1,015 fatalities in Tennessee in 2012, 295 people -- 29 percent -- died as a result of alcohol-related crashes. In 2013, preliminary statistics indicate 211 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes across the state. That's 24.1 percent of total deaths.

"We hope to see a significant reduction in drunk-driving fatal crashes in this state," Ronis said, citing the law passed last year.

Gibb isn't sure the ignition law will be enough to deter motorists from drinking too much before getting behind the wheel.

He said it will take changing how people view drinking and driving. Of last year's 28 fatal crashes, 11 were single vehicle crashes -- mainly due to alcohol.

Most of the media attention focuses on shootings and violent crimes in Chattanooga, Gibb said. The city had a total of 19 homicides last year -- nine less than the number of fatal crash victims.

With most violent crimes, victims often lead lifestyles that put them at risk for getting hurt. When it comes to traffic crashes, that's not necessarily the case, Gibb said.

"These are families getting killed driving down the road," he said.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.