Ask any local law enforcement officer and you’ll probably be told there are too many traffic fatalities in Hall County.
That’s considering 26 people died last year on Hall County roadways.
“One is too many,” said Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks, a spokesman for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
But there is reason to be optimistic about traffic safety in Hall County.
Despite a rash of crash fatalities earlier this year, the number of crashes and injuries from traffic fatalities has been steadily decreasing since 2005.
Meanwhile, fatalities have dropped since a 2005 peak of 36, and have largely remained steady in the 20s in recent years.
So far this year, there’s been an estimated nine fatalities, based on data compiled by The Times from local law enforcement agencies.
Statewide, traffic fatalities hit a 60-year low in 2011, Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, announced last week.
Law enforcement and state traffic safety officials credit better enforcement, education and traffic engineering for aiding that decline.
Oakwood Police Chief Randall Moon said he’s aware of the city police department’s reputation of aggressive enforcement through traffic stops, and he thinks it’s effective.
“We do have a high visibility,” Moon said. “People moan and groan and complain. I hear that a lot. But we look at the numbers and stats, and we see what we’re doing is working.”
Since 2007, the numbers of crashes and traffic-related injuries in the city of Oakwood have dropped each year. The city averages less than one traffic fatality per year.
Of course, Moon said, it’s not all due to officers pulling people over. He said traffic engineering changes on Mundy Mill and Frontage roads have also gone a long way it creating safer streets.
Sgt. Dean Staples, who leads the Gainesville Police Department traffic unit, said his department’s enforcement efforts tend to focus on putting marked patrol cars in areas with high rates of crashes.
“A lot of the time just being seen makes people drive a little better,” he said.
Dean listed education as a key factor in road safety as well. The Gainesville department also holds programs at schools aimed at reaching young drivers.
Hoping to highlight the dangers of drunken driving, the department uses the “Fatal Vision” program, which includes using goggles that simulate the vision of intoxicated drivers.
The department also has started a recent effort at Gainesville High School to track seat belt usage. So far, Dean reports, the high school students have 83 percent usage, whereas the city as a whole averages 96 percent.
And beyond local efforts, Blackwood said cars with ever-improving safety features and economic factors are making a difference, too.
And higher gas prices mean drivers are taking to the road less often. Fewer cars on the road mean fewer crashes.
“It’s pure exposure,” he said.
Despite the positive crash statistics, officials say they are still looking for improvements, concerns linger about driver habits. Wilbanks said the most common crashes investigated by the sheriff’s office involve drivers who fail to yield the right-of-way or are following cars too closely.
“Those driving habits are the leading cause of our repetitive types of crashes,” he said.
Traffic officials also cite a growing worry in distracted driving.
“The biggest thing is for people to just pay attention,” said Staples, citing use of phones, GPS units and personal computers as a problem. “Electronic devices are taking over when people should be paying attention.”
As the summer nears and road travel is likely to increase, traffic patrols will be keeping an eye out for all these bad habits, Blackwood said.
The Department of Highway Safety is teaming up with the Georgia State Patrol and local law enforcement officials to step up enforcement in the coming weeks.
“We’re just looking for the driver that could contribute to the situation that could cause a crash,” Blackwood said.