True
Department of Transportation
Distracted driving such as texting behind the wheel is behind a rise in traffic deaths on Georgia roadways this year.

Georgia Department of Transportation on Thursday, April 23rd, 2015 in state DOT road signs

Distracted driving behind the jump in roadway fatalities

A Georgia DOT road sign over I-75 flashes the traffic fatalities as of April 23, indicating driver behavior is a factor. Photo provided by Georgia DOT

As your Mom would tell you, you don’t have to be doing anything wrong on the road to be in danger.

The heartbreaking deaths of five Georgia Southern nursing students in a pileup crash outside Savannah last week is evidence of that sad truth.

But the Georgia Department of Transportation is trying also to draw attention to the number of traffic fatalities statewide and the driver behavior behind the deaths.

"GEORGIA ROADWAY FATALITIES THIS YEAR: 388," flashed a DOT over I-75 in Cobb County on Thursday. "STAY ALERT. STAY ALIVE."

Put in context, that’s more than three deaths every day, by the 113th day of the year. The implication of the sign suggests that driver behavior is contributing to those fatalities.

But considering PolitiFact Georgia just fact-checked road fatalities in January, showing highway deaths appeared to be declining, could that trend already be reversing?

And does driver behavior have anything to do with the trend?

Yes and yes, according to Terri Pope, spokeswoman for the Northeast DOT region, when asked about the signs and numbers behind them.

So far in 2015, traffic deaths are up 25 percent from last year, Pope said. The state is averaging 100 deaths a month on its roadways, putting it on track for 1,200 fatalities by year’s end.

If that happens, it will be a 4.6 percent increase from 2014 numbers – and the first year-to-year increase in nine years.

Even worse, of the year’s roadway deaths so far, only 38 percent of drivers were wearing seat belts and 69 percent failed to maintain their lane – behaviors that experts say save lives behind the wheel, Pope said.

And, 60 percent of the fatalities were single-car crashes where the vehicle hit a tree, culvert or bridge or drifted into another lane.

"Those statistics show that drivers, now more than ever, are driving distracted or are driving impaired," Pope wrote in an email.

So the number of roadway deaths in Georgia is definitely on the rise.

But has distracted driving – such as the use of a cell phone – also increased as a contributing factor in those crashes?

The state DOT does not have 2015 data with that information, since local law enforcement agencies would determine causes as part of investigations that will lag behind the actual accidents.

But the type of accidents – those single-car crashes into fixed objects or failing to maintain the lane – indicate the driver was distracted by something.

The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety provided PolitiFact Georgia with statistics on distracted driving from 2009 to 2014.

The data, with last year’s numbers still considered preliminary are:

Type

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

Total crashes

3,454

3,922

4,079

6,829

8,179

8,5,81

Injury crashes

862

1,102

1,022

1,800

2,091

2,275

Total injured

1,174

1,596

1,420

2,617

3,082

3,298

Fatality crashes

11

13

10

9

11

18

Total fatalities

11

23

14

9

13

19


Looking at those numbers, it’s clear the number of fatal crashes in which distracted driving was a factor jumped nearly 64 percent in five years.

The increase in the number of deaths was even worse: up nearly 73 percent in the five years (though down 17 percent from a high-water year in 2010).

The same factors that had been helping push down roadway deaths – safer cars, stepped up enforcement of drunken driving and roadway enhancements – are likely to have allowed for more injuries in crashes, said Harris Blackwood, director of the highway safety office.

But still, the number of people injured in distracted driving crashes jumped 181 percent in the five years.

"Driver error is a major factor in a lot of these crashes that have happened and in these increased fatal crashes," Blackwood said. "You’ve just got to get your focus on that road. The life you save is going to be yours."

With a busy summer season of driving ahead, that is the message transportation officials hope gets through the numbers.

The state DOT has begun flashing messages on Georgia roadways, indicating driver behavior is causing an increase in traffic fatalities.

The numbers bear out that increase. And the kind of crashes, and data from previous years, indicates driving while distracted with texting and phone use is likewise on the rise.

We rate the DOT’s claim True.