NASHVILLE — The number of Tennesseans killed in traffic-related deaths in 2019 represented the state's highest number of such fatalities in a dozen years.
As of Dec. 30, 1,129 people had died in incidents ranging from car, truck and motorcycle crashes to pedestrians and bicyclists struck by vehicles, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
It's the highest number of deaths since 2007, when 1,211 people died, according to a Times Free Press review of state data. The 2019 death toll represents an 8.66% jump — 90 more people — over the 1,039 people who died in 2018.
But the situation was worse in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, where traffic-related fatalities in 2019 jumped 33.55% over 2018.
Fifty-seven people died in Hamilton County versus the 43 killed in 2018 — a 14-person increase. Forty-four of the fatalities happened in Chattanooga.
The last time the city and county's combined death total was anywhere near that figure was in 2009, when there were 47 deaths within Hamilton County.
Hamilton County had by far the highest death toll in the 12-county Southeast Tennessee region both years.
Efforts to reach a safety department spokesman to obtain information on years before 2018 were unsuccessful Thursday.
But the community historically has seen higher numbers of deaths, according to Safety Department reports maintained by the General Assembly's Legislative Library.
One of the reports — the last one library files show was received from the Department of Safety — shows there were 58 fatalities in Hamilton County during 1994. A prior report showed 59 deaths in 1990.
By the Thanksgiving holiday, Hamilton County traffic deaths had already jumped by 23.1% over 2018, rising to 48. Most occurred inside Chattanooga's city limits.
"Speed was a factor in nearly half" of those, Chattanooga Police Department spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said.
With the arrival of the Christmas and New Year's holidays, fatalities continued to rise.
In Chattanooga, two people were killed in separate crashes in less than 24 hours, with one occurring on Highway 58 when a 28-year-old man crossed into oncoming traffic and was struck by two cars. A second man died when he was hit while crossing Highway 153 on foot.
And on Monday in the Nashville area, a Hendersonville police officer was killed after being struck by a vehicle while chasing a shooting suspect across Interstate 65.
VEHICLE DEATH RATE DECLINING
Between 1950 and 2019, Tennessee's highest number of highway deaths was in 1973 with 1,444 fatalities, according to Department of Safety figures. The lowest was in 2015 when 962 people died.
Department of Safety spokesman Bill Miller said in a Times Free Press interview in November that while fatalities have increased since 2015, the actual motor vehicle death rate is falling in Tennessee. That is the rate representing the number of motor vehicle fatalities per 100,000 miles traveled. But with higher traffic volume and more miles traveled, the total number of traffic-related deaths has increased.
"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."
Among other things, preliminary state figures show fatalities involving large trucks increased from 134 in 2018 to 153 in 2019.
Traffic fatalities in rural areas actually decreased very slightly in 2019 from 2018, from 522 to 520. But fatalities in urban areas more than made up the difference, rising from 520 to 609.
More teen drivers, ages 13-19, died in 2019. Those deaths rose from 84 in 2018 to 125 in 2019. Fatal crashes involving a senior driver age 65 or above increased, too. Those deaths went from 231 to 265 in 2019.
At the same time, the number of motorcycle-related deaths fell from 168 to 153 in 2019. But from 1999 to 2019, motorcycle crash deaths soared 159.32 percent, going from 59 to 153.
Pedacyclist deaths decreased from 8 to 6. But pedestrian deaths rose from 137 to 144.
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.
Chattanooga Police Department Lt. Danny Jones said in a statement the department takes a "proactive and preventative approach to traffic enforcement by using technology and data analysis along with an increased presence in specific areas."
The department uses "historical crash data and focused enforcement efforts in areas where there is a higher tendency for crashes to occur," he said.
And police also interact with community members in "nonpunitive ways to create a deterrence effect and remind motorists of safe driving behavior," Jones added.
NEW ROAD FUNDING WILL HELP
Tennessee House Transportation Chairman Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, said the state hit a modern high in 2002 with 1,339 deaths before the rate began dropping and hit a low in 2015 with 937 deaths.
"We've done a pretty good job bringing it down from the peak," Howell said, adding that there was a slow creep upward since 2015 before hitting 2019.
He attributes that to several factors, one being Tennessee had not substantially increased highway funding until the 2017 fuel-tax increases now accelerating road projects. Moreover, the state's population and number of vehicles are growing. Tennessee is now the 17th most populous state and may move to No. 16 in the next census, Howell noted.
"So we have the financial pressures, then we had population pressures which brought more vehicles onto the road," Howell said. "When you look at all the things and put all that in perspective, we've not done a bad job overall of keeping our roads pretty safe with the revenue stream that we had."
Now that road funding has increased, Howell said as House transportation chairman he's seeing a lot of projects across Tennessee.
"One of the biggest ones, of course, is Chattanooga," he said in reference to the $132 million project to overhaul the Interstate 75/Interstate 24 interchange known as the "The Split."
Those improvements should help with the situation, Howell said.
DISTRACTED DRIVER CITATIONS SOAR
The number of crashes blamed on distracted driving — both fatal and nonfatal — exploded in the 10-year period from 2007 to 2017, with 10,350 and 24,780 respectively, according to Safety Department figures.
Among the major distractions is cellphone use.
The problem is so bad that supporters of a Tennessee bill targeting cellphone use while driving finally got it through the General Assembly, despite grumbling from lawmakers who argued it wasn't needed because the state had existing distracted driving penalties.
People who use phones while driving in Tennessee now face fines of up to $50.
Proponents including Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain — one of the bill's primary sponsors — say motorists should use dash holders to avoid looking down and use voice texts as opposed to letting their fingers try to do their talking while they're zipping down the road.
Police urge drivers to "slow down, wear seat belts, leave the phone alone."
"Just pay attention to driving and do it within the speed limit," Myzal said. "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."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.