How we can prevent more Aimee Michael road tragedies

In following the trial and sentencing of Aimee Michael, the 24-year-old Atlanta woman who was recently convicted of causing a chain-reaction crash that resulted in the deaths of two adults and three young children, one can’t help but feel immense grief for each of the families involved. Now is also the time to learn from it.

One lesson for Georgia lawmakers is that they must work to improve road safety. They can accomplish this by increasing adolescents’ accessibility to driver education programs, making investments in improved roadway and community designs, promoting alternative forms of transportation and enhancing state and local transportation policies.

Traffic crashes are the single greatest cause of death to children and adults ages 1 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2007, more than 1,600 Georgians died in traffic crashes, a number that would fill more than four 747 jets.

Yet despite the significant number of deaths that can be attributed to crashes, the roads of our state, particularly in Atlanta, have never been more packed with cars. And there’s no guarantee that the drivers of these cars are knowledgeable about state traffic laws.

Speeding, changing lanes without signaling, failing to yield — these complaints are common among Atlanta drivers. And like many states, Georgia does not require public schools to provide driver education programs. As a result, many adolescents lack the necessary information needed to drive safely, a lack that sadly persists into adulthood.

Georgia has also failed to make infrastructural investments that would support safer roadways and a variety of transportation choices. In Atlanta, the car is king and it has to be. Neighborhoods are sprawled; schools and retail areas are often on busy roads miles from residential areas; roads commonly lack proper crosswalks or sidewalks; and budget cuts to essential public transportation systems like MARTA have become routine.

Corridors like Camp Creek Parkway and Buford Highway are notorious for being packed with high-speed traffic, creating conditions that make any slight error behind the wheel a potential catastrophe for those traveling nearby.

Research has long shown that investments in traffic safety education, roadway design and public transportation can save lives.

As the number of people walking and bicycling in a community increases, deaths from crashes decrease. Improving children’s knowledge of traffic safety, combined with making simple engineering changes to make sidewalks and streets safer, can lead to significant decreases in the number of child pedestrian deaths. Compared to riding in a car, using public transportation reduces a passenger’s risk of death tenfold.

Tragedies like the one involving Aimee Michael can be prevented. Let’s start now to make educational investments that will make Georgians smarter and safer drivers. Let’s change the designs of roads and neighborhoods to encourage walking, cycling and public transit to reach retail shops, schools, and parks. Let’s enact traffic laws and transportation policies that will protect motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

The immense burden of traffic-related deaths should make roadway safety an absolute priority for Georgia legislators. State and local officials can support a variety of policies and programs that will enhance the safety of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. These include:

● Adopt “Complete Streets” policies that require the implementation of engineering strategies and design characteristics to make roadways safer.

● Increase funding for programs that encourage walking and biking (e.g., Safe Routes to School) to increase safety, promote physical activity and reduce motor vehicle use.

● Revise school siting policies that encourage the construction and renovation of schools that are accessible by walking or biking.

● Increase investments in public transportation systems to reduce traffic fatalities and provide enhanced transit options.

● Adopt traffic safety laws that have been proven to prevent fatalities associated with motor vehicles (e.g., primary enforcement of seat belt laws, helmet laws, child booster seats, etc.).

By enacting policies founded in public health approaches, we can increase the health and safety of Georgia’s communities and allow residents to live to their fullest potential. We can prevent horrifying events like the one that took place that fateful day in April 2009 on Camp Creek Parkway. Let’s encourage our lawmakers to act now and make immediate policy changes that will protect our citizens and keep their lives from being cut tragically short.

Jamila Porter is assistant director of the Safe States Alliance in Atlanta.