Amid pandemic, speeding has deadly consequences on Georgia roads

One person was killed in a July crash on the ramp from I-285 East to I-75 South in Clayton County. So far this year, 1,297 people have died on Georgia highways.
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One person was killed in a July crash on the ramp from I-285 East to I-75 South in Clayton County. So far this year, 1,297 people have died on Georgia highways.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Georgia is on track for its first significant increase in traffic fatalities in years despite seeing fewer people on the road amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 1,300 people have died so far this year on state highways — an increase of about 2% over the same period last year — according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

That may not sound like much of an increase. But it comes amid a sharp drop in traffic volume during the pandemic. And it likely understates the number of people who have died because fatality reports take months to trickle in.

Safety advocates say there’s no mystery behind the rising fatalities. They say motorists are tempted to speed in lighter traffic. Distracted driving and a failure to wear seat belts also are factors. That combination has been deadly.

“Every one of those people (who died) didn’t go home to their families,” GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said. “That is unacceptable.”

In normal times, metro Atlanta has some of the world’s worst traffic. “Rush hour” consumes much of the morning and afternoon. Stop-and-go traffic routinely frustrates motorists trying to arrive at their destinations on time. Frequent fender benders, periodic truck rollovers and the occasional bridge inferno only add to the frustration.

But things changed during the pandemic. When Gov. Brian Kemp ordered Georgians to shelter in place in April, traffic volume fell as much as 50% on some state highways.

Even after Kemp lifted the order, traffic was slow to recover. Today, it’s generally back to normal in rural areas.

But GDOT says traffic on interstate highways is still down 5% to 10%. With the pandemic worsening, many school districts are offering digital learning, and many employees are still working from home.

Maybe months of sheltering have pushed some Georgians over the edge. Maybe free-flowing traffic has some giddy motorists pushing the pedal to the metal, occasionally to extremes such as the motorcyclist clocked at 178 mph on Ga. 400 in September.

In the first few months of the pandemic — from March 1 through July 15 — nearly 24% of Georgia Department of Public Safety speeding citations were for traveling 24 mph or more over the speed limit. That’s up from 15% for the same period in 2019.

“People are driving way over the speed limit now,” Georgia State Patrol Lt. Maurice Raines said.

Raines said higher speeds leave motorists less time to react when something goes amiss. The results have been tragic.

Through Nov. 6, at least 1,297 people have lost their lives on Georgia highways, up from 1,269 during the same period last year. Some recent examples:

  • Nineteen people died in crashes over Labor Day weekend — more than double the number who were killed in 2019.
  • Last week a Cobb County driver was charged with first-degree vehicular homicide in a September crash that left one person dead. Police said he was traveling 77 mph in a 45 mph zone in the rain on South Cobb Drive when he lost control of the vehicle and struck a man waiting for a bus.
  • An 18-year-old woman and a baby died and several other people were injured Sept. 30 when a high-speed chase ended in a crash in Midtown. Police clocked the driver at 120 mph on I-75. He faces two counts of felony murder and other charges.

Speed isn’t the only factor in the rising death toll. GDOT says three quarters of traffic fatalities are caused by unsafe behaviors such as distracted or impaired driving. And 60% of victims were not wearing seat belts or authorities can’t determine whether they were wearing seat belts.

“What is going on on the road this year is a handful of distracted-driving issues, speed issues, lack of seat belts,” GDOT’s Dale said.

That likely will reverse a recent trend of falling traffic fatalities in Georgia, which peaked in 2016 at 1,556 deaths.

The problem isn’t limited to Georgia. The National Safety Council, an advocacy group, estimates that motor vehicle death rates rose 20% in the United States in the first six months of this year.

With the busy holiday travel season approaching, some fear the mayhem will get worse. Raines said the state patrol will try to stem motorists' bad behavior.

“We will be aggressively enforcing the traffic laws,” he said. “The easiest way to not be pulled over by us is to follow the law.”

Georgia traffic fatalities

2014: 1,164

2015: 1,432

2016: 1,556

2017: 1,540

2018: 1,504

2019: 1,507

2020: 1,297*

*Through Nov. 6

SOURCE: Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, Georgia Department of Transportation