published Friday, July 20th, 2012

Officials hope drivers heed warning on highway signs, drive more carefully

Eastbound vehicles on Interstate 24 travel under a digital road sign Thursday stating the number of traffic fatalities in Tennessee this year.
Eastbound vehicles on Interstate 24 travel under a digital road sign Thursday stating the number of traffic fatalities in Tennessee this year.
Photo by Dan Henry.

Nationwide traffic-related fatalities

* 2011: 32,310*

* 2010: 32,885

*preliminary findings

Source: National Highway Safety Administration

Tennessee traffic-related fatalities

* 2012: 544*

* 2011: 946

* 2010: 1,032

*as of July 19

Source: Tennessee Department of Safety

In other states

Some states, including the following, place individual memorial markers for traffic-related fatalities on highways at the request of the family:





Illinois (DUIs only)


Montana (American Legion places white crosses)

New Mexico

South Dakota



Washington (DUIs only)

West Virginia


Source: State departments of transportation

Five hundred forty-four. That's the number of deaths so far this year on Tennessee roads, according to signs towering over Interstate 75.

The fatalities signs, which debuted on April 30, are a collaboration between the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the state Department of Safety and the Tennessee Highway Patrol to educate people about the dangers of driving, especially driving under the influence and seatbelt safety.

Chattanooga resident Grace Mullaney said seeing the signs on the highway was "jarring."

"Every time I see them, I think, 'Maybe I should slow down,'" she said. "It's scary, you know, to see the numbers. I always think about my dad saying, 'Driving a car is a big responsibility,' when I first started driving. It runs through my head when I see the signs."

The numbers were placed onto existing TDOT signs after a nearly 13 percent increase in statewide traffic-related deaths from January through April compared with the same time period last year.

The increase here follows a nationwide decrease for 2011. According to preliminary findings from across the United States, traffic-related deaths were down by a total of 575 in 2011 compared with 2010, the National Highway Safety Administration reported. In Tennessee, traffic-related deaths reached the lowest numbers in 40 years.

Public officials are not sure what caused the increase in the number of accidents.

"During the month of March, temperatures were warmer than usual, and we think more people were out and about and traveling as opposed to the previous year, 2011," said Dalya Qualls, public information officer at the Tennessee Department of Safety. "But we don't really know. It could be attributed to a number of things, but our priority is to educate the public."

Jennifer Flynn, community resource officer for TDOT, said the dramatic rise in deaths during the early part of the year prompted the agencies to take action.

"We were hoping to do something to call people's attention to it, and hopefully promote safe driving," Flynn said. "From a personal standpoint, it makes me think. You think about the fact that it's not just a number. Each one is a person -- that's someone's friend, someone's family."

The signs have affected Jon Buchan's driving, though he wasn't sure how other drivers reacted to them.

"I haven't really noticed a dramatic reduction in speed on the highways," he said. "I'm sure there's a lot like me, who notice and slow down. But I haven't seen anything significant."

Neither Kilbrey Fowler nor Joan Rose have changed their driving habits based on the signs, but both women said the numbers continue to astound them.

"I'm amazed that it continues to go up," Rose said. "I remember the day it was 444 -- because it's easy to remember -- and a week later it was 500. It was like, 'Whoa.'"

In addition to the signs, police are cracking down on seatbelt violations and those driving under the influence. The highway patrol office for the Chattanooga area has seen a 43 percent rise in DUI arrests and seatbelt enforcement.

"We have three priorities we're working on: hazardous driving -- which includes moving violations, speeding, following too close and reckless driving -- DUIs and seat belts," said Capt. David McGill, head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol for District 2, which covers Chattanooga. "If we can stay with that focus and save some lives, we're doing good."

The Highway Patrol has seen some success. Hamilton County has the largest decrease in traffic-related fatalities for the year so far, dropping from 21 to 13. That's due, in part, to highway patrol officers "saturating" areas with high alcohol-related fatality rates, according to McGill.

"It's being proactive in law enforcement. Instead of reacting, we're going out and preventing it before it takes place," he said.

But Chattanoogan Isaiah Hamilton is doubtful the signs will have any lasting effect.

"It's always a different generation of drivers, doing stupid things," he said.

Still, the fact that people are talking and thinking about the signs is a good thing, said Flynn.

"I've heard that from several people -- that it makes them think. It's a jarring statistic, when you see that," she said. "It's a big responsibility, driving."

about Rachel Bunn...

Rachel Bunn is originally from Ellijay, Ga., and graduated from the University of Georgia with degrees in magazines and history. While at UGA, she wrote for the student magazine UGAzine, served as news editor for the student newspaper, The Red & Black, and spent a semester studying British history at Oxford University in Oxford, England. She has previously worked at The Rockdale Citizen in Conyers, Ga., and The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the ...

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