The bad news is so frequent now that folks get used to hearing it:
Another traffic fatality. Maybe two. Maybe more.
Maybe here in Columbus, which has had 10 so far in 2017, nearly a year’s worth in just 2½ months.
Maybe elsewhere in Georgia, which last year had 1,540, 10 percent more than the 1,394 in 2015, according to the National Safety Council.
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Maybe in Alabama, which had 1,044 in 2016, a 23 percent jump from 846 in 2015.
Maybe elsewhere in the United States, which had 40,200 fatalities in 2016, up 6 percent from 37,757 in 2015, and the first time since 2007 that fatalities topped 40,000, the safety council said.
It’s a striking reversal: Nationwide motor-vehicle deaths dropped 15 percent from 2007 to 2015, when abruptly they began to rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They remain the leading cause of death for Americans age 30 or younger, the CDC said.
The safety council said the 2015 total was up 7 percent from 35,398 in 2014, when the increase from 2013 was only half a percent. So the growth was not steady. It was a spurt.
Researching Alabama fatalities, a University of Alabama study cited four factors for why deaths jumped as car crashes across Alabama increased only 2 percent from 2015 to 2016, from 149,339 to 152,532.
The factors were speed, not wearing seat belts, driver distraction, and pedestrian error. Impaired driving was a contributor to the other causes.
Alabama in 2016 had more crashes at speeds faster than 50 mph. It had 44 deaths in 33 wrecks involving speeds of 91 mph or more, up from 21 such crashes with 28 deaths in 2015, according to the research.
Speeding, drunk driving and neglecting to wear seat belts are not new behaviors, but drivers’ succumbing to distraction seems to be a trend now.
“People today are getting in their cars and they’re really not paying attention,” said Sgt. Chris Anderson, head of the Columbus Police Department motor patrol squad that specializes in accident investigation.
“You’re seeing so many wrecks today as a result of someone being distracted. And distracted is not only your cell phone. Distracted is playing with your radio, riding down the road putting makeup on, fixing your hair in the rearview mirror, eating, you know, everything,” he said. “Those are the things we are seeing that are causing a lot of these wrecks.”
He said drivers should be aware that stopping at a traffic light is still driving, so it’s no excuse to start texting behind the wheel.
“If you’re in physical control of that vehicle, you are driving, so don’t be messing with your phone then, either,” he said. “I’ve actually seen people driving down the road with papers, reading; newspapers reading, books reading; all of that stuff can wait until you stop.”
Distraction and speed are a deadly combination.
“Everybody’s in a hurry to get somewhere,” the sergeant said. “But what people need to realize before they get behind the wheel of that car is they’re putting their lives in their hands, and other people’s lives in their hands.”
Anderson illustrated the lethal math of speed and inattention on his smart phone’s calculator:
He picks 60 mph, a mile a minute with 60 minutes or 3,600 seconds in an hour and 5,280 feet in a mile.
A car going 60 mph travels 88 feet a second, so consider this, he said:
You’re driving. Your cell phone rings. You look down to grab it. That’s 88 feet you weren’t watching the road, if you’re quick.
If you’re not – if you can’t find the phone and start looking for it, or you get a text you read without pulling over, or you stare at an incoming call number and think about whether to answer – that’s more time.
Two seconds at 60 mph equal 176 feet; three seconds 264 feet; and four seconds 352 feet – nearly a football field including end zones, which is 360 feet.
The faster vehicles travel, the less control drivers have, Anderson added: “They’re speeding; they’re losing control. When they’re speeding, they’re not wearing their seat belt, so that causes them when they lose control to go into a spin or a roll. They get ejected from the vehicle and it causes their death.”
Or a passenger’s death, as another recurring issue is drivers’ neglecting to put children in proper restraints.
Anderson said impaired driving remains a danger, but alcohol is not the only cause: “People misconstrue being impaired as just alcohol…. We’re looking at even prescription medication. If you’re under the influence of prescription medication, even if you’ve been prescribed that, you can be charged with being impaired.”
Sometimes the person impaired is not in a car, but walking in the road. That can lead to pedestrian error, another factor cited in the University of Alabama research.
“You’ve got pedestrian violations, people just walking out in the roadway, not using crosswalks, not using sidewalks,” Anderson said.
Pedestrian deaths are a growing problem in Phenix City, said Phenix City police Sgt. Jeff Freeman: “Pedestrian fatalities are getting worse.”
Phenix City’s death toll shows it has not had more than 10 fatalities in a year since 2011, but just like Georgia, Alabama, and the nation as a whole, its numbers increased in 2015 and 2016.
Last year it had 10 deaths and 2,348 wrecks. In 2015, it had 10 fatalities and 2,577 accidents.
Each was twice the number of motor-vehicle deaths in 2014, when Phenix City had five deaths and 1,858 wrecks.
The 10 deaths in 2015 reversed a downward trend: Before that, the last time Phenix City had 10 deaths was 2011, when the city had 1,775 wrecks. The total dropped to seven out of 1,840 wrecks in 2012, then to six out of 1,785 crashes in 2013, then the five in 2014. Then 2015 showed the first significant increase in years.
Counting the toll
Besides 10 fatalities so far this year, Columbus recorded 11,558 wrecks, Anderson said. That’s close to totals from entire years: The city for all of 2015 had 15 deaths and 12,450 crashes. In 2013, it had 14 deaths and 12,121 wrecks.
But the numbers fluctuate, and it doesn’t take a lot of accidents to up the death rate. In 2014, the city had 22 deaths and 11,967 wrecks. In 2012, it had 24 deaths and 11,558 wrecks.
Last year, the toll was 27 deaths out of 12,198 crashes.
Many of the fatal wrecks that make the news here are not in Columbus or Phenix City. They’re on rural highways in Alabama, such as U.S. 80 West, which has had some particularly violent crashes over the past year.
State troopers with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, or ALEA, investigate those.
Cpl. Jesse Thornton said the agency worked 144 more fatal wrecks in 2016 than 2015, from 527 in 2015 to 671 last year.
“It was a dramatic increase, and this year is a continuing trend,” he said. “These crashes are occurring due to driver error such as speeding, DUI, failing to yield, distracted driving, etc. Not using seat belts is a problem, because we see it in around 60 percent of our fatal crashes. Any area or roadway can be deadly with a bad decision or not driving defensively.”
So far in 2017, troopers have had 116 fatalities, just one more than the 115 for the same period last year, he said.
The fatalities authorities have seen so far this year, following the dramatic increase in deaths in 2016, makes them worry about what’s to come.
Still to come are spring breaks, then graduations, then kids getting out of school, then the summer travel season.
“Spring break, summer break’s upon us; we’re going to have more people on the roadways,” Anderson said last week. “We’re going to have more children out of school. We’re going to have children riding bikes, walking, playing. Be aware. We’re going to have people traveling, going on vacation. Be aware.”
If motorists don’t start paying attention, the upward trend in deaths will continue.
“Drivers should be alert at all times. They should always expect the unexpected,” Anderson said. “If you’re driving through a residential neighborhood, you’re not expecting someone to run out between parked cars and be in the roadway. Buckle up. Put your children properly in restraint devices. Put down your cell phones. … Watch your speed.”
ONCE DECLINING, DEATHS INCREASE
The United States had 40,200 fatalities in 2016, 6 percent more than the 37,757 in 2015, and the first time since 2007 that fatalities topped 40,000.
Georgia had 1,540 deaths in 2016, 10 percent more than the 1,394 in 2015.
Alabama had 1,044 deaths in 2016, 23 percent more than the 846 in 2015.
Source: National Safety Council.
Columbus so far in 2017 has had 10 fatalities and 11,558 crashes.
In 2016, it had 27 deaths and 12,198 wrecks.
In 2015, it had 15 deaths and 12,450 wrecks.
In 2014, it had 22 deaths and 11,967 wrecks.
In 2013, it had 14 deaths and 12,121 wrecks.
In 2012, it had 24 deaths and 11,558 wrecks.
Source: Sgt. Chris Anderson, Columbus Police Department.
PHENIX CITY FATALITIES
Phenix City so far in 2017 has had only one death and 498 wrecks.
In 2016, it had 10 deaths and 2,348 wrecks.
In 2015, it had 10 fatalities and 2,577 wrecks.
In 2014, it had five deaths and 1,858 wrecks.
In 2013, it had six deaths and 1,785 wrecks.
In 2012, it had seven deaths and 1,840 wrecks.
Source: Sgt. Jeff Freeman, Phenix City Police Department.