Gridlock Guy: Holiday travel deaths and a year-long dangerous driving trend

September 18, 2020 Atlanta: All lanes of Northbound I-285 were shut down Friday morning, Sept. 18, 2020 after a widely scattered crash involving a tractor-trailer near Cascade Road. 2-hours later lanes began to reopen. It is unclear what prompted the wreck, which appeared to involve the truck and a Toyota Camry that caught fire after the crash. The collision occurred about 8:30 a.m., according to the the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. Debris was scattered across the roadway, prompting police to shut down the interstate north of the Cascade Road exit. The closure caused backups on the inner loop back to Langford Parkway, the Traffic Center reported. Lanes started reopening about 10:30 a.m., but there are still heavy delays in the area. Drivers are urged to avoid the backups by taking the Downtown Connector, Fulton Industrial Boulevard or Campbellton Road.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
September 18, 2020 Atlanta: All lanes of Northbound I-285 were shut down Friday morning, Sept. 18, 2020 after a widely scattered crash involving a tractor-trailer near Cascade Road. 2-hours later lanes began to reopen. It is unclear what prompted the wreck, which appeared to involve the truck and a Toyota Camry that caught fire after the crash. The collision occurred about 8:30 a.m., according to the the WSB 24-hour Traffic Center. Debris was scattered across the roadway, prompting police to shut down the interstate north of the Cascade Road exit. The closure caused backups on the inner loop back to Langford Parkway, the Traffic Center reported. Lanes started reopening about 10:30 a.m., but there are still heavy delays in the area. Drivers are urged to avoid the backups by taking the Downtown Connector, Fulton Industrial Boulevard or Campbellton Road. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

2020 has been consistent, at least. A putrid year for many people in a plethora of respects offered more of a mixed bag on Georgia roads. Atlanta traffic jams decreased greatly over the last nine-plus months, but traffic fatalities have increased, despite this. As AJC’s David Wickert recently pointed out, Georgia has already surpassed its 2019 traffic death total and the data typically lags behind three months. Nationally, as a recent Gridlock Guy column noted, the traffic death rate is up 31% per 100 vehicle miles traveled. The recent holiday travel period has also proved very deadly for Georgia motorists.

Statewide, 20 drivers died in crashes between 6 p.m. Christmas Eve and 11:59 p.m. Sunday, December 27th. Only 14 died in a similar period in 2019. There are several reasons for the spike in deaths, including that the same timeframe was 24 hours shorter a year ago or that this past Christmas Eve saw wet roads.

“We never want to see an increase, even if the holiday period is longer time-wise. We want to see a decrease in fatal crashes and fatalities,” Georgia State Patrol Lieutenant Mark Riley told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. Riley added that Christmas Day being on a Friday is why the state measured travel over the entire weekend.

A closer look at the numbers provides, albeit muted, some relief. The number of deaths per 24 hours in the 2019 period was 6.22 and while the 2020 number was 6.15. Technically, 2020′s Christmas rate was slightly lower, but it was very close to even. And the numbers in both years go further to highlight the same mistakes many motorists make that can produce awful consequences.

Not enough time has passed for the state to know the exact cause of each deadly crash, however, “We do know that there were several wrecks that involved alcohol or drugs, due to evidence that was found at the scene of the crash,” Riley said, including the scent of the driver or paraphernalia. GSP arrested 173 people for DUIs during this travel period.

The state also nabbed 4,347 speeders. “There’s a misconception that if there’s less traffic on the roadway, then you can drive faster and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is if you’re involved in a crash and you’re traveling at a high rate of speed, the risk of being involved in a serious injury or fatal crash increases,” Riley explained.

GSP has issued thousands of more citations for speeders 24 or more miles per hour above the speed limit than in 2019, thanks in part to the perceived freedom drivers feel on emptier roads. That’s a staggering figure alone and one which doesn’t include super speeders that local law enforcement catch.

Riley said that simply going to fast in unfavorable conditions is dangerous. This doesn’t just apply to driving over the speed limit. Even high traffic volume is an unfavorable condition for those driving right at or below the posted speed. If drivers come hurtling toward an unexpected backup, they have less time to react and can produce dangerous results. Fog and rain, of which drivers saw a large amount at the beginning of the travel period on Christmas Eve, obviously are also unfavorable. So are the shifty, slow, constricted work zones that dot Atlanta’s roads, Riley added.

Other driver errors persist at any speed. “You have people following too closely, not leaving enough room for people to slow down and leave enough room to react,” Riley said.

And then there is the problem of distracted driving, for which GSP issued 344 citations around Christmas. “We also see it as a major contributing factor in a lot of wrecks. Texting while driving or being distracted, in general. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your phone,” Riley explained. Errant animals, dropped items, dashboard screen-fumbling, and animated conversation are all distractions. But texting is what really takes eyes off the road and hands off the wheel the longest. Jim Morrison knew this 50 years ago and getting in a “texting wreck” could certainly give someone the “Roadhouse Blues.”

Riley echoed what many of us on the WSB Traffic Team wish for Georgia driving in 2021. You probably want the same thing - more patience and consideration. This means making more plans for getting home safely after having a few drinks. This means using turn signals and checking blind spots. This means not shutting down roads to dangerously drag race. This means avoiding the addictive pull of the phone notification.

We can’t completely control our fates, but we can control how risky we behave. Swiping a filter of caution and unselfishness over every driving move could generate some 2021 success, as traffic volume will remain lower into the New Year. Consider driving with more pause to be the commuting equivalent of wearing a mask. Georgia traffic deaths had trended down the last two years after the July 2018 Hands-Free Georgia Act. Let’s work together to make 2020 just an aberration.

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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