Traffic fatalities in Tennessee have gone down slightly over the past two years following the passage of two important driver safety laws, according to preliminary statistics from 2006.
The state lowered the minimum blood-alcohol content to 0.08 percent for drunken driving offenses in 2003 and a year later started allowing police officers to pull over motorists who weren’t wearing seat belts.
Both were expected to have an impact on the number of fatalities on Tennessee roads each year. The state has had a 6 percent decrease since 2004, from 1,339 fatalities that year down to 1,259 people in 2006.
“The bottom line is we’ve still got work to do,” said Kendell Poole, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office. “One fatality is too many.”
Krystal Waters, 17, and her mother, Lisa, both of the Antioch area of Nashville, survived after their car plummeted 45 feet into a river in 2005, flipping three times before resting upside down.
After kicking out a broken window, Krystal and her mother escaped the accident relatively unharmed.
“The only thing that happened was I had a fractured toe and she had a scrape on her head,” Waters said. “It would have been a completely fatal accident if we hadn’t been wearing seat belts.”
Waters joined the Tennessee Highway Patrol in a speaking tour of several elementary and high schools to tell students about her accident and encourage them to buckle up.
“It may not be cool for them, but I explain that it’s more important to be safe than cool,” Waters said.
The Governor’s Highway Safety Office gets federal incentives for these driver safety laws and funds educational campaigns like Buckle Up Your Truck and impaired driver checkpoints.
“We have to change public perception and behavior,” Poole said.
But judging the state’s progress toward safer highways strictly by fatality reports can be deceiving because the growing population and more cars on roads contribute to more crashes, Poole said.
Other statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration illustrate that Tennessee motorists are safer after the passage of these laws, Poole said.
Seat belt usage has increased slightly every year since 2004. In 2006, 78.6 percent of Tennesseans were estimated to use seat belts, based on roadside observations by University of Tennessee researchers.
The percentage of alcohol-related fatalities has been reduced from 40 percent of all fatal wrecks in 2004 to 19 percent in 2006.
“That’s huge. We are the highest populated state with a double-digit decrease in the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities,” Poole said.
Dr. Wayne Moore, chief of emergency medicine at Meharry Medical College, said deaths in traffic accidents need to be treated like preventable diseases.
“I look at this from a public health standpoint, because African-Americans are disproportionately affected,” said Moore, who works with the Meharry-State Farm Alliance, a joint corporate and academic initiative that studies and promotes primary seat belt legislation.
“Our health department does a lot of research on why people aren’t buckling up,” Moore said. “We study and research behavior, who’s doing it and who’s not.”
Currently 25 states have secondary seat belt laws, meaning either no requirements for motorists to wear seat belts or they can only be ticketed if they are stopped for another traffic violation.
Moore said Mississippi saw an almost immediate decline in fatalities after enacting its primary seat belt legislation in 2006. States also see a 10 to 15 percent increase in seat belt usage, he said.
The state has made a goal to have a 10 percent reduction in traffic fatalities by 2010, but in order to do that they need to focus on rural areas, Poole said.
“Our urban communities are stepping up, but we are seeing fatalities flat-lining or even increasing in our rural communities,” Poole said.
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