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TN sees value in fatalities tally on highway signs though deaths up

12:47 PM, Dec 31, 2012   |    comments
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Throughout 2012, they acted as a daily, deadly scorecard on the dangers of driving on Tennessee's roads.

But as the year closes out today, state transportation officials have yet to decide whether they'll keep using 151 electronic highway signs across Tennessee to show a daily count of traffic fatalities in 2013.

Kendell Poole, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Office, said the signs are a "victory for saving lives," despite fatalities this year topping 1,000 and surpassing last year's total. He favors using them again in 2013.

"Every number means a life," Poole said. "We cannot ever get caught up in statistics that are meaningless.

"It is our hope that lives will be saved."

As of Friday, there were 1,002 traffic deaths this year, 69 more than at the same point last year. In 2011, there were 938 total traffic fatalities, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety.

The increase raises questions about the effectiveness of the signs. Some motorists say they don't work, but Poole and other state officials say, at a minimum, they get people talking about staying safe.

"It was always our goal to raise awareness, and we certainly think we have done that," Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Beth Emmons said. "People are always talking about it."

The Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which includes the Tennessee Highway Patrol, is concerned about the increase this year. But spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the numbers should be put in context.

In 2011, traffic deaths reached a nearly 50-year low, and this year's total probably still falls below that of 2010, which saw 1,032 fatalities, Donnals said.

TDOT Commissioner John Schroer decided to erect the signs in April after seeing a spike in deaths through the first three months of the year.

Safety Department points to progress

From January through March, there were 64 more traffic deaths than during the same three months in 2011. But from April through November, there were just three more deaths than during the corresponding period in 2011.

"We are making progress," Poole said. "In the last seven years, Tennessee has reduced fatalities by 30 percent, which is incredible."

Poole attributed this year's increase to a warm winter, which meant more people hit the roads, and a rebounding economy.

Estimates show this year's total will be about 7 percent above last year, while traffic deaths nationally are expected to increase about 9 percent this year, Poole said.

Motorists certainly have noticed the signs and have strong opinions about them.

Lorenda Sue Patterson, 50, a Nashville attorney, said she sees value in the signs when they give information on congestion and wrecks, along with Amber Alerts.

Too much information, including the number of traffic deaths, can prove a distraction and raise safety issues, she said.

Drivers say signs are a mixed blessing

When asked on Twitter for opinions about the signs, several Tennessee drivers said the signs are morbid and a callous reminder to all those who lost loved ones in traffic accidents.

But Nashville resident Dave Schroeder, 34, said the signs help him be a safer driver.

"The fatality numbers serve as reminders of reality on the road," he said by email. "My wife and I notice the signs often and drive safer because of them."

Poole said he understands people's concerns about the signs. Drivers look at them for a host of other information, and many of the signs are in urban areas where highway speeds are slower, he said.

"There are people who pass under those signs every day that have lost a loved one," he said. "We feel, like, rather than it being morbid, that it is a positive message that will save more lives than we will ever know."

Contact Duane W. Gang at 615-726-5982 or dgang@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @duanegang.

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