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Fatal crash rate in Hall County declines
Seat belt use, education and improved medical services attributed to decrease
A Hall County firefighter looks over a truck that recently crashed on Candler Highway. The driver survived. The number of fatal accidents in Hall County are down more than a third from a recent peak of 36 in 2005. - photo by Tom Reed

Longtime Hall County Coroner Marion Merck remembers the days when funeral homes ran the county’s ambulance service, and more folks were dying on the roads.

“The grab ’em and run days are over,” Merck said.

And while that era of 30 years ago has long passed, Merck and his deputy coroners have noticed in just the past few years that theyare called out to fewer fatal wrecks.

In fact, fatal car crashes in Hall County are down more than a third from the recent peak of 36 reached in 1999 and again in 2005.

Merck said he believes better driver safety education programs in the schools, more focused traffic enforcement efforts and improved emergency medical care are among many factors in
the decrease.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for our medical professionals, the EMTs, the fire department, the emergency room,” he said. “Everything seems to be working more hand in hand.”

Sgt. Dean Allen, commander of the Georgia State Patrol’s Gainesville post that investigates fatal wrecks in Hall County, said the most common fatal crashes seem to be the ones that are harder for law enforcement to prevent.

While officers can lock up people for driving under the influence and write tickets for speeding, it’s now other human errors that cause the most deadly crashes.

“Most of the fatalities we work now, they pull out into a road and fail to yield to another car and get hit,” Allen said.

The second most common fatal crash is failure to maintain lane by either running off the road or crossing over the center line.

Distractions and falling asleep at the wheel can be factors in
those wrecks.

“People don’t realize that just hitting a small tree will kill you,” Allen said.

DUIs and speeding are the third and fourth most common causes of fatal crashes in Hall County.

Sgt. Dale Cash of the Gainesville Police Department said he believes the increased traffic enforcement efforts and tougher DUI laws are resulting in fewer impaired drivers on the road. Cash noted that Gainesville Police made less DUI arrests in 2009 than in 2008, and on last year’s New Year’s Eve, only one person was charged with drinking and driving.

“They know we’re out enforcing it,” Cash said.

Cash also said seat belt usage is a factor. Gainesville consistently boasts between 91 and 93 percent seat belt usage, according to surveys conducted by officers who park in designated areas and count the fastened seat belts as motorists drive by. That’s better than Georgia’s average of 89 percent and among the best seat belt usage rates in the nation.

“We have the signs out there, and we kind of brag about the fact that we have that high a compliance rate,” Cash said. “We take pride that we’re above the state average.”

Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said new roads have made drivers safer.

“Hall County has had a number of major road improvements in areas where we’ve seen high fatality counts,” including Ga. 60 North, U.S. 129 N. and U.S. 129 S.

Bob Dallas, director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, calls it the “four E’s:” engineering, education, enforcement and emergency medical services.

Dallas’ agency provides funds for local law enforcement to buy the Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic cars seen in Hall County patrolling for aggressive and impaired drivers.

Dallas said new safety features and better manufacturing of passenger cars is one factor, but “what we see in Georgia that is helping tremendously is that people are buckling up.

“That is going to be your most immediate impact in reducing crash deaths,” Dallas said.

Statewide, fatal crash numbers are down as well. In 2009, Georgia saw about a 15 percent decrease in deadly wrecks, and an 8.5 percent decrease the year before.

The number of fatal crashes has also declined nationally. Some have pointed to the fact that due to the economy, fewer miles are being driven. But while the 2.9 trillion miles driven by all American motorists in 2008 was fewer than the 3 trillion miles in 2007, the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles decreased at a faster rate, according to data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“That tells us it’s something more than just the economy,” Dallas said. “All these different things we think are combining to make these improved numbers.”

Said Allen, “when people slow down, wear seat belts and pay attention to what they’re doing, you’re going to reduce fatalities.”

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