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Traffic Deaths Spiked to 25 in Athens Last Year

This heat map shows where the most crashes happen in Athens—mainly along West Broad Street and Atlanta Highway, downtown, at Loop interchanges and at Lexington Road and Gaines School Road. Credit: ACC Transportation and Public Works

Ariana Zarse was walking across East Broad Street downtown in the crosswalk near the railroad track just after midnight Oct. 9 when a car came out of nowhere, plowed through a yield sign and killed her.

The driver—who was later arrested on hit-and-run and vehicular homicide charges—was going so fast that, when investigators reviewed video from a nearby security camera, they couldn’t even see the car’s headlights yet when Zarse stepped into the road. The 20-year-old UGA student did everything she was supposed to do to stay safe, but still became one of a record 25 victims of traffic violence in Athens last year.

Traffic deaths in Athens jumped from 11 in 2019 and 15 in 2020, despite overall crashes being at their lowest level in five years, according to the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. Nationally, 31,720 people died in motor vehicle crashes during the first nine months of 2021, a 12% surge over 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As people stayed home during the first part of the pandemic, roads emptied, and reckless, drunk and distracted driving became more prevalent. Then, as restrictions eased, those trends remained, except now with more vehicles—and people—to collide with. 

In addition, pickup trucks are getting taller and heavier, which makes it harder for drivers to see pedestrians and more likely those pedestrians will die if they’re hit. Other factors are less quantifiable.

“There’s a portion of the population that is incredibly frustrated, enraged, and some of that behavior shows up in their driving,” Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, told the New York Times last month. “We in our vehicles are given anonymity in this giant metal box around us, and we act out in ways that we wouldn’t face to face.”

The surge in traffic deaths has led Athens-Clarke County to change the way it responds to wrecks. Police now notify an on-call engineer with the ACC Transportation and Public Works Department who visits the crash site to determine whether it was the fault of the driver or a flaw in the road design. If needed, TPW will do a road safety audit and identify potential improvements, like narrowing car lanes, adding protected bike lanes or other measures to slow down drivers—just lowering the speed limit isn’t enough. Those reports go straight to ACC Manager Blaine Williams.

“You can have a road be 25 miles an hour, but if it’s built for 50 miles an hour, not a lot of people are going to drive the speed limit,” said Daniel Sizemore, ACC’s bicycle-pedestrian safety coordinator. That’s a title Sizemore said is somewhat misleading. “It’s not just about bike and pedestrian safety,” he said. “It’s about safety for all road users.” 

A look at where the crashes occurred reveals some patterns: In addition to Zarse’s hit-and-run death, drivers killed five other people on U.S. Highway 78 last year, including one on Lexington Road, two on West Broad Street and two on Atlanta Highway, along with two more on Epps Bridge Parkway. Five people died on the Athens Perimeter and four on Tallassee Road. Six pedestrians and cyclists died; four were single-vehicle crashes, and the rest involved multiple motor vehicles.

TPW and the Georgia Department of Transportation, along with representatives from St. Mary’s Hospital and Hill Chapel Baptist Church, did a safety audit on West Broad in October. The group walked the corridor and found that it’s not always well-lit and needs more crosswalks, as well as crosswalk signals that respond faster and give people more time to cross the street. “If we can make it an easier experience at the crosswalks, hopefully more people will cross at those locations,” Sizemore said. Just a week later, a driver hit and killed Glenn Stevenson, 59, as he was crossing West Broad on foot near Alps Road.

A TSPLOST citizens advisory committee that recommended transportation projects for a May 24 sales tax referendum also targeted less-traveled but historically underserved areas. The final list includes not only millions for major thoroughfares like Atlanta Highway, but also neighborhoods like East Athens, Stonehenge and Westchester. They’re often characterized by “desire lines” where, lacking sidewalks, a steady stream of people on foot wears down dirt paths. “There are already people out there on the sides of roads every single day,” TSPLOST committee chair Lauren Blais told ACC commissioners during a December presentation. 

Two GDOT projects should make West Broad and Lexington, both state highways, safer as well. A new Loop interchange at Lexington Road will include bike lanes and a Firefly Trail flyover. GDOT engineers estimate that a future roundabout at West Broad and Hancock Avenue could reduce crashes by 75%. 

Moving forward, ACC is developing a Vision Zero plan, a strategy adopted by many communities worldwide with the goal of eliminating traffic deaths. New technology like predictive analysis uses artificial intelligence to help traffic engineers measure close calls, not just actual injuries and deaths.

Meanwhile, four people have died in Athens car crashes already this year while local drivers continue to live out their Formula 1 fantasies. In February, police arrested a man who was clocked at 142 mph on the Loop and claimed he’d been going 155. A few days earlier, police said they caught drivers going 101 mph on West Broad and 105 on Jefferson Road. ACCPD reminded residents: “Excessive speed was a factor in a number of our recent crashes.”