NASHVILLE — As Tennesseans and other travelers hit the road Wednesday for a busy and lengthy Thanksgiving holiday, motorists may want to take heed of a few sobering facts as they drive to join family and friends.
Sixteen people died in traffic-related deaths across Tennessee during the 2018 holiday period. A quarter of those occurred in Southeast Tennessee with one fatality each in Hamilton, Bradley, Sequatchie and Monroe counties.
And this year's holiday comes with year-to-date state traffic-related deaths already up 6.1% over last year, according to Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security figures. As of Tuesday morning, 999 people had died this year while traveling interstates, state highways and local roads and streets.
That's 58 more deaths than during the same period in 2018 and Tennessee could be on the path this year to exceeding last year's total of 1,041 traffic deaths.
In Hamilton County, local traffic deaths so far this year have jumped by 23.1% over 2018, rising from 39 to 48, according to state figures posted on the Safety and Homeland Security website early Tuesday morning. Most occurred inside Chattanooga's city limits.
Hamilton County's traffic fatalities in 2019 doubled from two years prior from 24 to 48 in the same time period.
"Speed was a factor in nearly half" of the 37 fatal crash deaths occurring within the city, according to Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Elisa Myzal.
City police officers' message is "slow down, wear seat belts, leave the phone alone," she added. "Just pay attention to driving and do it within the speed limit. If you're speeding because you're running late, keep in mind, getting to your destination late is better than not getting there at all."
Regarding Thanksgiving, Myzal said the department has looked at the data and is placing officers where the greatest need is shown.
"We also work in conjunction with the Tennessee Highway Patrol on the interstates and other state highways that both agencies patrol," she said.
Matt Lea, spokesman for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, said deputies will be out patrolling the community as usual during holidays.
"As always, we encourage people to celebrate the holidays in a safe and responsible manner," he said.
Annual traffic deaths year-to-date
Source: Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security website as of 6:05 a.m. Tuesday
MILLIONS EXPECTED TO HIT ROAD
Working in collaboration with INRIX, a transportation analytics firm, AAA projects 49.3 million of the estimated 55 million travelers with a trip of 50 miles or more this Thanksgiving will be getting there by car or truck. INRIX expects Wednesday afternoon will be the "worst time on the roads with trips taking as much as four times longer as commuters mix with travelers."
AAA and INRIX say Thanksgiving Day should be the best time to travel.
But Thanksgiving is by no means America's deadliest holiday when it comes to traffic. Dubious honors for that go to the July 4 holiday period.
Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Dereck R. Stewart said earlier this week that "the loss of life is never easy, especially when that loss could have been avoided. The pain remains for a lifetime."
Stewart's comments came as he announced the department's "I-40 Challenge" in which troopers will be stationed at 20-mile intervals along Tennessee's longest interstate, which stretches from the Mississippi River to the Great Smoky Mountains.
But the colonel said other areas, including Chattanooga, where Interstates 75 and 24 intersect, are by no means being ignored.
"That is why I am making a commitment to increase our trooper presence not only on the I-40 corridor, but on all major Tennessee roadways," Stewart said. "We encourage the public to make safe choices when traveling on our Tennessee roadways. Stay off your phone and don't drive distracted, wear your seat belt, and do not drive impaired."
VEHICLE DEATH RATE DECLINING
Between 1950 and today, Tennessee's highest number of highway deaths in an entire year came in 1973 when there were 1,444 fatalities, according to Department of Safety and Homeland Security statistics. The lowest number was 2015 when 962 were killed. It has since moved up with 1,041 deaths reported during all of last calendar year.
Department of Safety spokesman Bill Miller said that while fatalities have increased, the motor vehicle death rate began falling in 2016. That is a rate representing the number of motor vehicle deaths per 100,000 population.
"What that tells us is that most of the increase in fatalities is attributable to an increase in traffic," Miller said in an email. "This is probably also the case for large truck-involved crashes."
Miller said seat belt usage in Tennessee is "as high as it's ever been," pointing to the department's survey this year showing a usage rate of 90.9%.
"Compare that with the 48.6% usage rate of all fatally injured passenger car occupants in 2019 and it's pretty good evidence that seat belts save lives," Miller said.
But he also noted that given the current rate of fatalities, "we are on track to exceed 1,041 fatalities this year."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.