Increase in Fatal Crashes Likely Due to Three Contributing Factors
March 27th, 2017 by Attorney John Colvin
In 2016, the number of fatal crashes in Tennessee increased over those occurring in 2015, and as of March 17 this year, the state recorded 183 fatal crashes – exactly the same number as this time last year.
So what’s causing an increase in fatal crashes? A Tennessee Highway Patrol officer told Nashville’s News Channel 5 that the number of people driving distracted is higher than ever, and in 2016, many people involved in crashes weren’t wearing seat belts. But the Tennessee Traffic Fatalities Historical Report shows little variation in seat belt use – 368 unrestrained occupants died in crashes in 2014; that number decreased to 343 in 2015 and rose slightly to 348 in 2016.
One factor in many roadway fatalities is driving under the influence of drugs. In fact, from 2010 to 2015, fatal crashes involving drugged drivers increased by 89 percent. Drugged driving has now surpassed driving under the influence of alcohol as a factor in fatal crashes.
Efforts to Change Dangerous Behaviors
Tennessee used to have one of the lowest penalties in the nation for failure to wear a seat belt. But a new law, effective in January 2016, increased the fine for not wearing a seat belt to $25, up from $10. For a subsequent offense, the fine is now $50, instead of the previous $25.
The new fines still aren’t much, compared to seat belt fines in some states, like Hawaii ($112), Maryland ($83), and Oregon ($130). Oregon is also the only state that requires all vehicle occupants to wear seat belts. In Tennessee, only front seat occupants older than 16 are required to wear seat belts.
It may take time for police to discern whether the increased fines for seat belt violations will reduce traffic fatalities. But in the year the law became effective, it did not reduce unrestrained passenger fatalities.
Distraction and Deadly Crashes
Among all Tennessee crashes (fatal and non-fatal), those involving distraction have been steadily increasing since 2014. There were 21,055 distracted driving crashes in 2014, compared to 19,123 the year before and 24,743 distracted driving crashes in 2016, up from 22,975 in 2015.
In February, THP partnered with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, in Jackson, to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving and to ramp-up enforcement of Tennessee’s law that prohibits texting while driving. Enforcement is sometimes a challenge, though – Tennessee has no law prohibiting drivers from holding a phone while driving, so even when police suspect a driver is texting, they may have no proof.
New legislation was proposed in February that would allow police officers to analyze a driver’s phone, if the driver is involved in a crash causing serious bodily injury and police believe distraction was a factor. The bill states police would use a device to detect whether the driver was texting at the time of the crash.
The Tennessee Highway Safety Office announced its “Stop Drugged Driving” campaign on March 16. Scheduled to speak at a March 22 kickoff press conference were the surviving family members of three people – one, a newborn – killed in a crash with a drugged driver.
It’s clear that lawmakers and police are working hard to stop dangerous drivers and reduce traffic fatalities. But police can’t monitor every driver on every road. People have to do a better job of being responsible drivers.