FOLKSTON, Ga. – Law enforcement officials are dealing with that they are calling a "deadly epidemic" that is sweeping the state of Georgia's roads and highways.
According to the Georgia Department of Transportation statistics released last week, there was a 25 percent increase in fatalities the first quarter of this year compared to 2014. This increases the average to 100 fatalities a month, which puts the state on track to have over 1,200 or more fatalities this year.
"This is alarming because it will be the first increase in fatalities in Georgia in nine years," said Capt. William Hires, coordinator of the Coastal Area Traffic Enforcement Network.
According to officials, the fatalities are caused by an array of issues, including distracted driving, crossing streets without proper signals or crosswalks and not looking for bicyclists, just to name a few.
The GDOT report shows that there have been 948 motor vehicle fatalities in Georgia in 2015 -- a 15 percent increase in fatalities compared to the same time last year, which accounts for 141 more deaths due to motor vehicle crashes, and 20 of those were just last week.
The Governor's Office of Highway Safety's "Below 1000 – Every Life Counts" campaign with their "Drive Alert – Arrive Alive" campaign was launched to remind people to wear a seat belt and not text, eat, program a GPS or engage in any other distracting activity while behind the wheel.
Drivers like Teresa Edwards, who admits that though she's not proud of it, she does text and drive, though she promises she's quitting.
"I know it only takes a second to look away from the road to have an accident and it could cost you your life. That always does cross my mind," Edwards said.
Statistics show that 60 percent of fatalities result from single-vehicle crashes -- a single vehicle hitting a fixed object like a tree, culvert or bridge.
What is the answer to reducing fatalities in Georgia? Hires said the answer is simple.
"We just need the motoring public to buy what we are selling. We are selling traffic safety which will reduce crashes. If we can reduce crashes, then we can reduce injuries and fatalities," Hires said. "Everyone needs to buckle up. It is the law and properly worn seat belts can reduce the risk of fatalities by 45 percent and serious injuries by 50 percent in motor vehicle crashes."
During the first quarter, only 38 percent of victims in fatal crashes were wearing seat belts.
Of the 948 fatalities this year, 17 of them were bicyclists, which represents a 31 percent increase in bicycle fatalities. Hires reminds motorists that Georgia law requires a three-foot buffer when you are passing a bicycle, and bicyclists are reminded that they are a non-motorized vehicle and must obey all the traffic laws just like the driver of any motor vehicle.
This means stopping for stop signs and red lights, driving on the right side of the road, not zig-zagging back and forth or riding in the center turn lane.
Pedestrians accounted for 15 percent of the fatalities during the first quarter, which is a 31 percent increase in fatalities compared to a year ago. Pedestrians should use sidewalks when available and cross at crosswalks. GDOT has spent thousands of dollars across Georgia putting in pedestrian signals.
"It is simple: Push the button and wait for the walk light," Hires said.
Georgia law states that "where a sidewalk is not provided but a shoulder is available, any pedestrian standing or striding along and upon a highway shall stand or stride only on the shoulder, as far as practicable from the edge of the roadway. Where neither a sidewalk nor a shoulder is available, any pedestrian standing or striding along and upon a highway shall stand or stride as near as practicable to an outside edge of the roadway, and, if on a two-lane roadway, shall stand or stride only on the left side of the roadway."
The first quarter of this year, 79 percent of the fatalities were the result of driver behavior; 69 percent from failing to maintain their lane (the vehicle drifts into another lane or off the roadway) and 10 percent from rear-end crashes.
"Georgia, like many states, is experiencing an increase in fatalities. Right now, we are on track for levels we have not seen since 2007. Many of these are single vehicle crashes where vehicles left the roadway and struck a tree, a ditch or a bridge. While not official, this is indicative of distraction and most likely that is texting. Lower gas prices, better employment and an improving economy are all contributors to more people on the road. We are asking drivers to be our partners in safe driving by buckling up and putting down the phone," said GOHS Director Harris Blackwood.
Officers representing agencies in the 14 counties of the Coastal Area Traffic Enforcement Network will be working the rest of the year to cut down on traffic violations which are causing these crashes.
"It is not about writing a citation," Hires said. "It is about saving lives. It is simple. Slow down, buckle up, hang up and drive sober. If we can get the motoring public to do these four simple things, then we can make a drastic impact on saving lives in Georgia. The focus of Below 1000 and Drive Alert – Arrive Alive is for drivers to take responsibility to protect yourself, your passengers, other drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists by buckling up, staying off the phone and driving alert (not drowsy or impaired). We are at 948 today with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays ahead of us."
For more information on how to stay safe while driving, The Georgia Department of Transportation has a list of tips and tricks on their website to keep drivers and pedestrians safe as part of their Drive Alert, Arrive Alive campaign.