published Saturday, September 14th, 2013

Traffic fatalities on rise in the Chattanooga area

This memorial cross marks a traffic fatality at the corner of Hickory Valley Road at East Brainerd Road.
This memorial cross marks a traffic fatality at the corner of Hickory Valley Road at East Brainerd Road.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Recent

This week there have been three traffic fatalities in the Chattanooga area.

• On Thursday evening, Red Bank police responded to a fatal crash after a PT Cruiser pulled into the path of a motorcycle at Dayton Boulevard and Midvale Avenue. The motorcyclist was thrown across Dayton Boulevard after impact, striking a northbound truck. While the investigation is ongoing, it appears the crash is not alcohol related.

• On Tuesday, a one-year-old boy was struck and killed by a relative who was moving a vehicle at a residence at 3832 Kingwood Circle in East Ridge. No charges are pending, according to East Ridge police.

• On Tuesday, 50-year-old Michael Godwin was struck and killed as he was walking on Bonny Oaks Drive. He was walking to go fishing less than a mile from his house. A truck swerved to try and avoid him and was unable to miss him. Godwin died at the hospital, according to Chattanooga police.

Traffic fatalities involving alcohol, pedestrians and motorcycles are on pace to exceed last year's figures, according to Chattanooga police.

In 2012, there were 22 traffic fatalities that investigators responded to, but as of this week, the department has already recorded 17 deaths, according to police data.

Year to date, 47 percent of the deaths are alcohol-related; 18 percent are pedestrian deaths and 18 percent involved motorcycles, records show.

Last year, 40 percent of traffic deaths were alcohol related, 5 percent were pedestrian deaths and 18 percent involved motorcycles.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said Chattanooga Traffic Sgt. Adrian Gibb.

As a result, there will be more enforcement, which will focus on increasing public awareness of safe driving practices, he said. Trends in public safety often highlight violence, gangs and shootings -- not driving habits.

"The focus is on gangs and shootings. That's where the focus is. It's understandable. I get it," Gibb said.

"People are scared they are going to get shot walking out of the mall more than they are about killing someone in an accident," he said. "Driving is something they do every day. My goal is to get public awareness back. It's a problem."

In 2012, Chattanooga investigators responded to 24 homicides. That's almost the same number of people who died in traffic crashes.

While Chattanooga has had an increased number of shootings this year -- 97 -- it's still far fewer than the number of crashes that sent people to hospitals this year. Last month when Gibb checked the figures, police officers worked 273 serious traffic crashes.

Behind Gibb's desk on the second floor of the Police Service Center on Amnicola Highway, a city map is posted on the wall. The 2011 and 2012 traffic fatalities are marked with icons.

"Do you recognize this area down here?" Gibb asks, as he points toward East Chattanooga and the Southside. "This is the area where all of the shootings are happening. It's just as bad with fatalities."

Nine of the traffic deaths in the last two years took place in those regions.

Most of the officers assigned to those areas focus on drugs, guns and violence, he said.

Gibb is convinced that more manpower assigned to monitor traffic will help. In areas that have a high officer presence where tickets are given, the number of deaths decreases, he said. To have an impact, he said, at least twice as many officers working in the unit are needed. Eight officers work in the unit now.

More traffic cops mean that people drive safer because they don't want to get a ticket or get arrested, he said.

"You can drive the S curves [in Hixson]. The speed limit is 35. They know there are cameras are there. People are creatures of habit," he said.

"If you go to the bar Friday night, and people know that there's cops all over the place, are you going to leave there drunk? Chances are slimmer," he said.

Gibb peers at a photo of a traffic crash victim who died on a motorcycle earlier this year. The man's head is so severely smashed that he has no face left. In a bloody ball of carnage, he's unrecognizable.

"You see that and it's kind of sobering," he said.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@times freepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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