Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry had a serious message for conference-goers at a recent event in Douglasville.
There have been more than 820 fatalities on state roadways, which is about 100 more deaths than were recorded at this time last year. (And that didn't count the 10 reported statewide during the Labor Day holiday period between Thursday evening and Monday night).
In Georgia, traffic fatalities are on pace to be 12 to 13 percent higher than last year, McMurry said at the annual state conference for disadvantaged business enterprises (minority-and women-owned businesses) on Aug. 26.
Nationally, roadway deaths also increased by 14 percent during the first half of 2015, compared to the corresponding period last year, according to the National Safety Council.
GDOT has been preaching against distracted driving for several months. Before this year, Georgia had seen nine straight years of declines in traffic-related deaths. However, indications are that the ever-increasing popularity of texting and surfing the web on smartphones while driving beginning to take a grim toll.
GDOT believes distracted driving is the culprit behind many of the accidents because 49 percent of them involved just one vehicle. Sixty-five percent of those cases involve drivers who have veered out of their travel lane and struck a culvert, tree, ditch or other barrier.
"The conclusive proof is not in yet, but I think these things have a lot to do with it," McMurry said, holding up his phone to the crowd.
Even more strangely, 61 percent of the fatalities involve people not wearing seat belts. That's despite the fact that Georgia has a 95 percent compliance rate for seat belt use.
McMurry admonished the crowd to stop texting, buckle up and avoid driving while impaired or even sleepy.
"Put your phone down," McMurry said. "I know when it buzzes or beeps we’ve got to see what’s happening, but it can wait."