By most accounts, automobiles are safer now than they’ve ever been. And more people are dying in them.
The increases in traffic fatalities from 2015 to 2016, the last full calendar year, are too stark and too widespread to be written off as statistical coincidences, as Tim Chitwood’s weekend report made graphically clear.
Last year, highway deaths rose by an alarming rate in Georgia. They rose by an alarming rate in Alabama. They rose by an alarming rate in the United States. And as of this past weekend, 10 people had died in traffic accidents in Columbus alone before the first day of spring.
Fatal highway accidents last year rose by 6 percent nationally, by 10 percent in Georgia and by a truly appalling 23 percent in Alabama, where almost 200 more people died on the roads in 2016 than in the previous year.
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This spike in highway tragedies follows almost a decade of steadily improving traffic fatality rates — a 15 percent decrease from 2007 to 2015.
The usual culprits can always be counted on to figure in these grim statistics — simple carelessness, drunk or otherwise impaired driving, speed, unrestrained drivers and passengers, pedestrian error.
Speed seems to have been the most significant factor, at least statistically, in Alabama’s toll: Forty-four people died in crashes involving speeds of 91 mph or more last year, more than double the 2015 figure. Contributing to the speed problem, almost certainly, is Alabama’s chronic shortage of state troopers, which makes it a “hammer state” where bat-out-of-hell drivers have relatively little deterrence to recklessness.
Distracted driving has also risen dangerously in the digital age, as tragic reports and statistics make graphically clear. But as Columbus Police Sgt. Chris Anderson noted, distraction means a lot more than just cell phone talking or texting: “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.” Even such traditional distractions as eating or tuning the radio can be deadly when they take a driver’s eyes and attention off the road.
A report issued last week in Alabama suggests another fatality factor that, geographically and demographically, would definitely apply in large areas of Georgia as well — access to, and/or response time for, trauma treatment in rural areas. One of the reasons cited for Alabama’s high rate of highway deaths is that seriously injured drivers and passengers who might otherwise survive don’t receive the treatment in that first critical half-hour or hour that could save them.
All of which is more reason, not less, for driving safely, soberly and attentively.
Oh, and let’s not forget … defensively. Even if you have your eyes and mind responsibly on the road, with your vehicle cruising at a safe speed and the family securely buckled in, those others — the ones who are ever a threat to make even good drivers part of bad driving’s tragic statistics — are always out there. Always.