Roads safer, but problems remain

Roads safer, but problems remain

January 16th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Preliminary reports indicate that both Tennessee and Georgia recorded fewer traffic fatalities in 2011 than in 2010. Public safety officials in both states should be proud of the reductions, which mirror a similar national decline in roadway deaths. Their pride must be tempered, however. Other troubling findings suggest that much remains to be done if the declines in deaths are to continue.

The new numbers are compelling. In Tennessee, the number of traffic deaths fell from 1,031 in 2010 to 947 last year. It was the lowest number of recorded fatalities since 1963 -- when 941 died. In Georgia, 1,145 people died on the roads compared to 1,250 a year earlier.

The declines are part of a national trend. In 2010, the latest year for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued a report, the number of traffic deaths was the lowest since 1949. NHTSA's preliminary report for the first quarter of 2011 indicates that the death toll continues to fall.

While all that is positive news, there are trouble spots. In Tennessee, for example, officials at the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security say seat belt usage continues to be a concern.

Surveys indicate that safety belt usage in the state was 87.4 percent in 2011, but that 56.3 percent of those who died in vehicle crashes were not wearing the devices. Higher usage of seat belts, then, likely would translate to fewer highway fatalities. Public safety advocates rightly say they will make seat belt usage a high priority.

Georgia officials are troubled by another number gleaned from the preliminary 2011 traffic safety report. While the number of road deaths declined across the board, the number killed on motorcycles and similar vehicles increased. Perhaps that's a fluke; motorcycle fatalities in most states, including Tennessee, are in decline. Some officials, though, believe economic conditions might be the cause of the Georgia increase.

Some individuals, they say, have given up their cars and trucks in favor of motorcycles and scooters because they are cheaper to operate. The result is a growing number of two and three-wheelers on the road and a concomitant increase in the number of mishaps involving them.

Many officials agree, as well, that economic conditions have reduced the overall number of drivers on the road. In Atlanta, for example, one survey indicated a 2 percent reduction in the amount of Interstate traffic. Any reduction in the volume of traffic, they correctly say, likely will produce a corresponding reduction in accidents, injuries and fatalities.

The decline in traffic is not the only reason for a lower highway death toll. Stepped up law enforcement, improved vehicle safety and public service campaigns by government agencies and by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving play roles as well. That work must go on unabated if the welcome decline in traffic deaths here and across the nation is to continue.