Gridlock Guy: Georgia road fatalities surprisingly high in 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has reduced traffic on Georgia highways - but not traffic fatalities. (AJC file photo)
The coronavirus pandemic has reduced traffic on Georgia highways - but not traffic fatalities. (AJC file photo)

Recent GDOT numbers have surprisingly shown that traffic fatalities in Georgia are slightly higher in 2020, compared to the same time in 2019.

This bucks at a recent annual trend of decreasing highway fatalities, partially due to 2018′s Hands-Free Georgia anti-distracted driving law and the continuing evolution of vehicle safety.

Driver safety has also felt the “2020 Effect”. Despite a pandemic-induced 40-50% reduce in traffic at the height of the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring, crash deaths have risen. The AJC’s David Wickert reported from a recent GDOT board meeting that 1,202 people have died on Georgia’s roads, compared with two less at the same time a year ago.

“It’s shocking and it’s really disappointing when we look at numbers year over year,” GDOT’s Natalie Dale said on a recent WSB Traffic Podcast. “We have to take into account that there is a three month lag in reporting.”

So the number is already higher now and will likely continue to rise, especially now that traffic volume has nearly returned to normal. “That’s surprising, because we have spent the bulk of 2020 with a reduction of volume - a reduction in the congestion,” Dale said, echoing the conundrum.

The real question therein is how does this happen?

“What we see is...excessive speeds in the general purpose lanes,” Dale said. “Just because you could go fast when the roads were [wide] open during COVID, doesn’t mean you should. That unfortunately was costing people their lives.”

There was a harrowing trend on these newfangled empty roads some six months back. Local law enforcement saw their number of triple digit speeding tickets soar. And we on the WSB Traffic Team counted far less fender benders, but saw a stark rise in the number of bad wrecks.

And some haven’t taken the lead from their soles even now that traffic levels have almost returned. This is leading to some horrific crashes in backups, as those carrying high speeds cannot stop in enough time for the queue.

There has also been a proliferation of drag racers and groups that shut down streets to drag race. These stunts put participants and innocent bystanders in danger. And that kind of recklessness certainly can program those same drivers to drive that way in busier conditions.

GDOT cannot enforce the law. That is the job of the police. But the state’s transportation officials are not impressed at all with the racing trend. “We build the roads and we want people to respect them,” Dale said, adding, “It’s disrespectful to our roads. It’s disrespectful to taxpayers who are building these roads and maintaining these roads - and our crews.”

But speeding and other reckless driving are not the only factors in Georgia’s surprising highway death rate. Many in such wrecks are not wearing seatbelts. “That is the one of the most shocking things that I see when I look at these [fatality reports],” Dale said. “And in 2020, there’s just not an excuse for that. If you’re getting in a car, whether it is in the front of in the back, whether you’re in your own car, whether you’re in an Uber or a Lyft, you need to buckle up. Because it doesn’t even have to have to do with anything that is going on in your vehicle. There can be an irresponsible driver who hits your car and could cause devastation based on the fact that you were or were not wearing your seatbelt.”

Dale and GDOT aren’t only passionate about encouraging others to click the buckles. “We’ve even launched an internal campaign with our own employees to remind them that if they are out on a job site, if they are in a state vehicle, if they’re in a GDOT vehicle, HEROs, anyone - we want our employees to be safe. Buckle up! We want for our own employees what we want for everyone.”

Many factors beyond our control make driving risky. But we can control how fast we drive, how respectfully we maneuver, and whether or not we wear seat belts. Dale summed it up very simply, “Bottom line: we want people to go home alive to their families.”

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com .

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