Tennessee sees more traffic fatalities this year despite fewer commuters on the road

This photo provided by the Tennessee Highway Patrol shows the scene of deadly crash involving a utility vehicle and a school bus carrying children on Tuesday evening, Oct. 27, 2020, in Decatur, Tenn. (Tennessee Highway Patrol via AP)

Despite fewer Tennesseans being on the road this year compared to last, traffic fatalities continue to increase across the state for the fifth year in a row, something the Tennessee Highway Patrol stressed during a news conference following a deadly school bus crash in Meigs County late last month.

"Traffic fatalities are on the rise and in a year when they should not be - we've been in a quarantine due to a pandemic," Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Miller said. "Drivers have to drive under the rules of the road They have to drive respectfully and with courtesy for other motorists. Occupants must buckle their seat belts You must not drive any kind of way it's going to possibly inflict harm or place somebody else's life in danger."

Tennesseans were placed under a stay-at-home order in early April in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Schools closed, businesses shuttered. And with that, fewer people were on the road, according to data from the Maryland Transportation Institute and the Federal Highway Administration.

For the first two months of 2020, traffic volumes remained relatively similar to last year's. But by March, the number of miles traveled by Tennessee commuters fell by 17%, according to the FHA's traffic volume trends report.

Traffic fatalities by the numbers YTD

Chattanooga2019: 322020: 26Hamilton County (includes Chattanooga’s figures)2019: 442020: 35Tennessee2019: 9462020: 1,004Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol

By April, that number fell to 37% fewer miles traveled compared to 2019. And while traffic volume has grown since April, it's still below last year's numbers.

Yet, 58 more Tennesseans have died so far this year compared to last, according to THP data. And last year was the state's deadliest for traffic fatalities since 2007.

But while Hamilton County saw steep increases in traffic deaths in 2018 and 2019, fewer people have died in traffic crashes so far this year - 35 - compared to this time last year: 44. The number was 36 in 2018.

In all of 2017, there were 27 traffic deaths.

Just within Chattanooga, there have been 18% fewer traffic fatalities this year. But motorcyclist deaths have increased from one as of this same time last year to five this year.

"None of us are exempt from a horrific, tragic crash that could take our life for someone else's life," Miller said as he announced that a 7-year-old girl and driver of a Meigs County school bus had died in a crash that left seven other children hospitalized.

Since 2014, there have been eight fatal crashes on Highway 58 in Meigs County, where much of the highway narrows to only two lanes. Thirty-six more have been injured.

"I challenge everyone hug your children, love your family. Embrace every moment that you have," he said.

"There's not a day that I don't leave my home and kiss my own children, hug my wife and try to remember how their shampoo smelled, how they felt in my arms, as I leave that door," he added.

"I've been in this job for almost 24 years. [Fatal crashes] are never easy. Any time a law enforcement officer walks up on a door to knock on that door and tell someone in that home that their world has come to a screeching halt, to a tragic end, at that point in time, their world, their life has changed. It'll never be the same.

"We have a responsibility as drivers to take that vehicle as serious as we would take a loaded weapon in our hands. That vehicle's more dangerous in many ways than a loaded weapon. That vehicle can harm more people in a blink of an eye."

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.