In statistics dating from 1994 to 2001, 63 fatalities were recorded on Catoosa roads according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). During the same period, Whitfield County documented 122 traffic-related fatalities; Walker County confirmed 87; and Murray County logged 74 traffic deaths. Only Dade County maintained a safer record in north Georgia with 48 traffic-related fatalities reported over this seven-year period.
According to Sgt. Kermit Stokes of Georgia State Patrol post 5 in Dalton, the figures can be misleading because a number of factors determine a county’s fatality rate.
Catoosa’s low incidence of traffic deaths is impressive when considering the amount of annual traffic the county receives, Stokes said.
“You’ve got to look at per capita population,” he said. “There’s a lot of variables you have to throw in as far as population statistics and the types of roads.
Catoosa County has a considerable distance of I-75 with six lanes, whereas Dade County only has I-59 with four lanes and not much of it.
“Everybody that’s lived in Catoosa County can tell you that over the last 10 years, the traffic rate has just skyrocketed,” Stokes said. “I think it’s good to see that percentage-wise the injuries and fatalities haven’t coincided with that. We’ve been able to keep those down.”
NHTSA figures show Georgia’s statewide traffic fatality rate has risen over the last three years by an average of about 200 deaths per year. With 1,644 traffic deaths recorded in 2001, Georgia leads its neighbors — Alabama (994), South Carolina (1,059), Tennessee (1,237) and North Carolina (1530) — in the number of documented cases.
Law enforcement officials cite the successful, multi-state “Click It or Ticket” campaign for Tennessee’s lowest fatality rate in three years.
“There’s no doubt that enforcing Click It or Ticket is an integral part of it (saving lives),” Stokes said. “It’s been proven over and over again.”
The GSP has investigated 595 crashes on Catoosa roads this year that included 438 injuries, Stokes said. Increased seatbelt use is directly correlated to a decrease in the severity of those injuries, he said.
“The seriousness of the injuries has been greatly reduced over the years,” Stokes said. “The seriousness of the crashes hasn’t really changed that much — that’s always going to be pretty much constant.”
Typically, passenger vehicles and light trucks account for about 85 percent of vehicles involved in fatal accidents in Georgia, with motorcycles and large trucks accounting for most of the remaining 15 percent.
In addition to the perennial hazards of speeding, authorities are contending more frequently with other reckless driving behaviors including impatient drivers and incidents of road rage — serious catalysts for traffic deaths.
Although GSP troopers have made 66 driving under the influence arrests this year in Catoosa, Sgt. Stokes said prevention campaigns have been successful.
“We’ve seen a decrease of DUIs over the last several years and that’s due to increased awareness in the public and law enforcement community, stiffer legislation, higher fines and tougher sentences,” he said.
Ten traffic fatalities have occurred in Catoosa County this year.
Despite a relatively low traffic fatality rate in recent years, the county claims several roads where vehicle-related tragedies consistently occur.
Ga. 151, known locally as Old Alabama Road or Alabama Highway, is one of Catoosa’s heaviest traveled connectors, linking Ringgold to Lafayette, Summerville and Rome via Hwy. 27.
Residents along the road, along with state and local officials, say motorists constantly travel the two-lane highway at dangerous speeds.
This summer, a head-on crash near the Woodstation community on Ga. 151 involving a tractor-trailer and pickup resulted in the death of the pickup’s driver, while a Labor Day weekend crash on the road claimed the life of a Ringgold motorcyclist. These two fatalities follow a series of other accidents on Ga. 151, including a catastrophic two-vehicle crash in 1994 that killed five.
“It is one of the more critical roads that we deal with,” Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said.
Stokes agrees, noting, “The deadliest street in the county this year as far as fatalities has been I-75 because of the pile-up, followed by Ga. 151 South.”
Fatalities were also documented this year on Front Street, Holcomb Road and Reed’s Bridge Road.
About 35,000 motorists travel the seven-mile stretch of Battlefield Parkway, or Ga. 2A, between Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe each day. As Fort Oglethorpe continues its fast-track growth, the four-lane highway has accumulated an abundance of new traffic lights.
Although the lights have helped keep speeding in check, they have also brought on a new problem — driver frustration.
“There’ll usually be two or three cars that will try to go through an intersection after the light turns red,” said Lt. Gary McGonathy of the Fort Oglethorpe Police Department. “They do that because traffic is so congested. They just don’t have the time in their busy schedule to wait for three minutes for that cycle to go back through. They’re gambling with their lives over three minutes; so it’s impatience.”
In consulting Fort Oglethorpe accident statistics with the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, McGonathy recently noted a pattern in many of the wrecks.
“Following too close and disregard for traffic control devices are the number one factors that kept creeping up as to what was causing our wrecks,” he said.
McGonathy said the intersection of Hwy. 27 and Battlefield Parkway is probably Fort Oglethorpe’s most dangerous spot for motorists.
“Within a mile of that intersection is where the last five fatalities we have had have been,” he said.
Those fatalities have been attributed to improperly loaded tractor-trailers rounding the curve too sharply and rolling over, cars following too closely, and alcohol- and drug-related accidents, McGonathy said.
“Alcohol and drugs are the contributing factors in most of our fatalities out here,” he said. “Unfortunately, we get a lot of that.”
McGonathy, a Level 5 accident reconstructionist, is called to investigate all of the city’s fatal wrecks, using the same computerized accident mapping software that the GSP uses to reconstruct accidents.
Although only secondary roads intersect where Patterson Avenue meets Cross Street, traditionally, this intersection has been the site of frequent wrecks with injuries, McGonathy said. The accident rate has dropped since Fort Oglethorpe officials, recognizing the danger, made the intersection a four-way stop this past April, he said.
“That was probably the worst intersection that we had in the city,” he said. “The traffic congestion on Battlefield Parkway is the key to the number of wrecks that we have in that particular area.”
Interstate 75 slices through the center of the county with an estimated 70,000 motorists traveling the major corridor every day, according to a recent state DOT study.
A one-half mile stretch of I-75 just outside of Ringgold was the site of the largest traffic accident in Georgia history this past March, involving 125 vehicles. A dense, unexpected fog bank combined with excessive speeding at the scene was determined to be catalysts for the crash, which claimed five fatalities.
State and federal authorities conducted tests following the accident and determined that chronic speeding, combined with a heavy tractor-trailer presence, along the interstate can create a dangerous situation for motorists. The DOT’s radar tests estimated that motorists travelling the corridor typically exceed the posted speed of 65 mph by 5-10 mph.
Sgt. Stokes cautions that travel on I-75 is safer than most county roads due to routine maintenance and its design, which restricts movement to one direction and offers limited access.
“When you deal with the volume of traffic on I-75 as opposed to the volume on Alabama Highway, Reed’s Bridge Road and those other county roads, statistically, you’re probably safer on the interstate because of the comparison of the number of crashes and the total miles driven on those roads,” he said.
Speeding and increased traffic are problems on the county’s main and secondary roads that can no longer be ignored, Sheriff Summers said.
Last year, the sheriff’s department responded to 11,629 traffic-related incidents — an average of about 32 calls per day, Summers said, adding officers’ response times during this period jumped from six minutes to nine minutes.
“The last two years traffic complaints have been the number one problem our department has faced,” he said.
The GSP has already issued over 1,800 citations and over 2,700 warnings this year in Catoosa County, Stokes said.
“That’s just the troopers here at post 5 in Dalton, not counting what the county’s enforcement efforts have brought in,” he said.
Acknowledging a need to control the problem before it gets out of hand, the sheriff unveiled a proposal in July for a new five-person traffic task force.
If implemented, the state Department of Transportation will need to conduct a new survey of the county’s roads before the officers can begin traffic patrols.
Law enforcement agencies are prohibited from using radar devices on county roads unless licensed and part of the licensing process includes a road survey, Summers said.
Under the existing license, the department can only operate radar on 26 county roads, the sheriff said