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Wider Friendship Road has led to a rise in crashes
Nearly 400 crashes have occurred in past year on widened South Hall highway
Since work on the Friendship Road widening project was completed last summer, the number of crashes on the South Hall County road has increased to nearly 400 in a year’s time.

Crunching numbers

• Number of crashes on Friendship Road, June 1, 2016-June 1: 385

• Number of crashes in Hall County, June 1, 2016-June 1: 7,184

• Hall County traffic fatalities, 2016: 32

• Hall County traffic fatalities, 2017 to date: 14

When the officer arrived for duty through the Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic grant in January, Hall County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Todd Casper had two words: Friendship Road.

“I told him I want you to go down there every single day you work. ... He may go down there for an hour, leave, go work somewhere else or some other roadway we’re having complaints on and he’ll go right back for another hour,” Casper said.

From June 1, 2016, to June 1 of this year, there have been 385 wrecks on the Ga. 347/Friendship Road corridor. Six of the 14 traffic fatalities this year were on that Hall County road.

“When the road opened up, we were like, ‘Man, this is going to be a problem,’” Casper said.

Considering the county has seen 7,184 wrecks in the same 12-month period, Friendship Road’s crash total is 5 percent of all county wrecks. The six-lane widening project was open to the public July 1, which created headaches for those attempting to enter or exit the residential and retail sections, Casper said.

The sheriff’s office and the Gainesville Police accepted a $500,000 grant in February, which would fund the patrol vehicles and salaries of three officers.

Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Director Harris Blackwood said at the time he believed the grant would “result in reduced fatalities and safer roads in Hall County,” after 32 people died in Hall County crashes in 2016.

One of Casper’s HEAT units now spends three hours in a 12-hour shift just on Friendship Road, particularly between Hog Mountain and McEver roads.

“He usually mixes up the times he is there to allow for a wider range of (time frames) to be covered,” Casper said.

The six deaths on Friendship Road came in four separate wrecks between Feb. 5 and June 4.

The two most recent fatalities— Anita Strickland, 59, of Gainesville, on May 17 and William Frey, 70 of Duluth last Sunday — were on motorcycles. Strickland was heading to the American Legion, while Frey was in a funeral procession.

The other driver in both cases were charged with traffic violations by law enforcement.

“Usually, a motorcycle accident involves a failure to yield by another vehicle. That’s the majority of the accidents that we see,” Gainesville Police Sgt. Chris Jones said at the time of Strickland’s death.

Casper said he believes the fatalities are a mixture of high speed and failing to yield the right of way.

Last year, Casper’s officers issued 126 citations in four hours on Friendship Road. The ticketed speeds ranged from 79 to 113 mph in the 45-mph zone.

Although the sheriff’s office was unable to provide ticketing data, Casper said ticketed speeds are now closer to 70 mph, though he did get a recent report from one sergeant of a vehicle traveling 114 mph in the early hours.

“You’ll sit out there and have no problem getting them, but it’s not the way it used to be,” he said.

Casper said he believes drivers from other cities are beginning to use the six-lane motorway while maintaining interstate highway speeds.

“You’ll be amazed how many people have no idea where they are, have no idea what the speed limit is. They’re following GPS. It’s gotten to where it is a huge cut-through, and GPS is sending everybody through there that cuts between (interstate highways) 985 and 85,” he said.

The sheriff’s office is continuing to use social media to spread the word in addition to safety awareness events with companies such as UPS and King’s Hawaiian.

“We’re going to companies all around. We’re holding all the educational events, awareness events and trying to do all the enforcement we can also,” Casper said.