NASHVILLE — State Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons says Tennessee is "moving in the right direction" with preliminary figures showing Tennessee traffic deaths last year fell 2.7 percent, dropping from 1,015 in 2012 to 988 in 2013.
The figure represents just the fourth time in 50 years that vehicular fatalities have dropped below 1,000, officials say.
In 2012, deaths increased over 2011. At 937 traffic-related deaths, 2011 represented the lowest number in traffic-related fatalities since 1963.
The 2013 improvement came after officials publicly voiced concerns earlier this year as the number of deaths on state roads and highways began running neck and neck with 2012.
Gibbons said in a news release the department's "focus on data driven deployment of state troopers to have the maximum impact on DUI and seat belt enforcement is paying off."
But, he added, "we have much more work to do."
One area of concern -- pedestrian fatalities rose 25 percent in 2013, going from 68 in 2012 to 85 in 2013.
The head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, Col. Tracy Trott, said in an interview that while law enforcement "had a little rough stretch in the summertime ... we finished up the year pretty strong."
"You're always going to have ebbs and flows in fatality numbers. I've learned that in my time at the Highway Patrol," he said.
Totals can be affected by unusual, horrific events like the October crash of a North Carolina church bus on Interstate 40 in East Tennessee. Eight people dead in a fiery crash after the vehicle's front tire blew, causing the bus to cross the interstate median.
Trott said that based on overall trends "I see that our enforcement initiatives are apparently having a pretty good effect. Our No. 1 priority has been DUI enforcement. Our No. 2 priority has been our seat-belt enforcement and those two areas have shown great improvement."
Impaired driving fatalities fell 26.7 percent from 2010 to 2013 in Tennessee. In 2013, preliminary statistics indicate 211 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes across the state. That's 24.1 percent of total deaths. State troopers increased their number of DUI arrests in 2013 to 6,428, a 90.4 percent increase over 2010.
Troopers also issued 74,277 seat-belt and child-restraint device citations in 2013, a 135.1 percent jump from the 31,599 citations issued in 2010.
Unrestrained motorists accounted for 48.9 percent (364) of vehicle occupants killed in 2013. That's down from the three-year average of 53 percent.
"So we improved 4 percent in one year just because of our seat-belt enforcement and the concentration and efforts made by our troopers," Trott said.
DUI-related fatal crashes fell from 29 percent of the total fatalities to the 24.1 percent figure, Trott noted.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.