DOT wants to scare drivers straight

They’re the fortune tellers of doom, the bearers of bad tidings.

Before each major holiday rolls around, you’ll find them in their office, crunching numbers that few of us want to hear: the number of people expected to die on Georgia roads.

They are the state workers who make up the Department of Transportation’s crash reporting unit, led by a man named Norm Cressman.

And, if you think their work is morbid, maybe even a bit scary, then they’ve accomplished their goal. Part of their job is to scare Georgians into driving safely.

The Highway Patrol releases the crash reporting unit’s statistics for six major holidays: Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

The predictions serve “as a sobering reminder to the public that you should slow down and be considerate around the holidays,” said Georgia DOT spokeswoman Crystal Paulk-Buchanan.

Last week, the Highway patrol predicted 34 people will die in crashes over the Christmas and New Year’s travel periods.

But just how do they arrive at these depressing statistics?

Cressman comes up with the numbers by committee; he’ll ask two or three of his staffers to produce estimates, which they base on the historical crash data for the same holiday and the number of hours in the upcoming holiday period.

Then they all sit down, compare their findings and decide which numbers make the most sense.

“And then I’ll kind of make the final say,” Cressman said.

These days, Cressman isn’t as confident about the predictions as he once was. Two employees from the unit who recently retired had been doing it for years with uncanny accuracy.

“The folks that were here before, they were a lot better at it than we are,” Cressman said.

What made them so good?

“Experience,” said Donna Brantley, one of their replacements. “They had a crystal ball.”

When asked how accurate his guesses were during Thanksgiving, Cressman said: “Not good.”

Not that that’s a bad thing.

His unit estimated that 16 people would die and 1,398 would be injured in 3,570 car crashes.

They were pretty close in their fatality prediction — 13 people died — but they were way off on their injury and crash estimates, according to the preliminary statistics, which showed there were 730 injuries in 3,089 crashes.

But any number of factors, such as bad weather or a sharp rise in gas prices, could throw things off, he said. Gas prices affect the number of drivers on the road.

This was Brantley’s first year producing death statistics. The mother of two teenage boys, she said she isn’t as bothered by it as she is the daily police reports that describe fatal crashes. Either way, the job still turns her into a worrywart.

“My kids get tired of me coming home [saying],‘OK, make sure you wear your seat belt,’” she said.