Traffic fatalities drop as more people buckle up

TOP TRAFFIC FATALITY FACTORS• Motorists not wearing seat belts• Excessive speed• Impaired driving• Failure to yield• Distracted driving such as cell phone use

Traffic fatalities are down by 86 this year compared to last year, putting Tennessee on track for the first sub-900 fatality year since statistics were recorded.

The Chattanooga area is looking just as strong, down 16 fatalities this year.

At the end of June 2010, Tennessee had 501 traffic deaths, but 2011 has only seen 415.

Although gas prices are high and police have been out in force to keep the roads safe, Clint Shrum, law enforcement liaison for the Governor's Highway Safety Office, attributes the decline to one simple factor - more people are buckling up.

According to a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga study, seat belt usage is up to just over 87 percent from 81.6 percent last year.

"I think the message is finally hitting home. We put the message out there, 'click it or ticket,' buckle your seat belt because it's the law, and people are starting to see the carnage that happens in accidents when people are not using a seat belt," Shrum said. "That one act can determine whether you live or die in a crash."

Although fatalities are up in some local counties, numbers are down overall. For example, Hamilton County is down four deaths and Bradley is down nine.

"Everything seems to be on a downward trend right now, so that's good news. It means what we're doing is working," Shrum said.

Police across the state have focused on seat belt education programs, particularly in schools. Drivers who don't get the message are hit with a $10 ticket that escalates $10 more for each successive seat belt violation.

Other than wearing a seat belt, Shrum said there are plenty of common-sense steps people can take to reduce the risk of transportation deaths, including driving the speed limit, not drinking and driving and behaving as a defensive driver.

"When you bring all those things together and just use common sense, we can avoid a lot of traffic fatalities," he said.

Motorists should keep that advice in mind. Traffic deaths tend to be heavier in the second half of the year, with more drivers on the road traveling for summer vacations and holidays.

"We've got our hands full," Shrum said. "We're doing some good. We're down 86, so that's a good thing, but we've still got a lot of work to do to keep people safe on the road."