Catherine Shinholser, a teacher at Chase Street Elementary School and regular runner in Athens said drivers have been less careful in recent months.
“I’ve had a lot of near-hits recently,” said Shinholser.
Seth Jones, a senior police officer for Athens-Clarke County Police Department, said law enforcement has noticed more dangerous driving.
“We’ve been seeing differences in driving habits, a lot more speeding or just reckless driving,” said Jones.
Why It’s Newsworthy: More than 20,000 people died on U.S. roads in the first six months of 2021, setting a record for the largest number of fatalities in that time period since 2006, and raising safety concerns for pedestrians here in Athens. These significant increases in fatalities come even as driving has declined nationwide by 13%, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data.
In addition to traffic fatality data, NHTSA released behavioral research findings from March 2020 through June 2021, indicating a surge in risky driving behaviors compared to pre-pandemic times.
NHTSA identified speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and impaired driving as main nationwide behavioral changes. Decreased enforcement of traffic laws due to the pandemic is another contributing factor here in Athens.
“There’s just not as many officers out through fear of the virus,” said Jones. “When officers aren’t actively patrolling, you don’t get the voluntary response from drivers on the road to slow their speeds down.”
Initially, COVID-19 and associated lockdowns significantly decreased traffic activity, causing drivers to engage in more risky behavior. Now, traffic activity is nearing pre-pandemic levels but we are seeing a lasting change in driving behavior and a worsening surge in traffic fatalities.
Not an Equal Opportunity Public Health Problem
Since people in Athens use the same roadways, one could assume pedestrian safety is an equal-opportunity public health problem. However, not all pedestrians are equally vulnerable.
As with many covid-driven changes, these changes in driving behavior impact disadvantaged groups. According to a study by Tennessee State University researcher Deo Chimba and his colleagues, socioeconomic and demographic factors are associated with pedestrian crash frequency and severity.
The 2018 study used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping to show commuting habits, specifically low car ownership rates, correlate with pedestrian crash frequency. Chimba found populations with lower median household incomes are less likely to own cars and need to walk to work or bus stops, increasing exposure risk and thus the frequency of pedestrian crashes. The study identified high population density and a concentration of commercial areas as other contributing demographic factors.
Economically disadvantaged areas like Athens-Clarke County present higher risk factors when compared to surrounding areas of Barrow, Jackson, Madison, Oconee, and Oglethorpe counties. Athens-Clarke combines high population density with low median income rates, creating a dangerous pedestrian environment.
Athens resident Patricia Hall noticed an increase in dangerous driving behaviors on her daily commute to work as a deli clerk for Kroger on Alps Road. Hall takes the Route 6 bus, traveling from the downtown post office bus stop to Alps Road, crossing many intersections on her way.
“When you hit the crosswalk, they (drivers) used to stop,” said Hall. “Now, they keep going even with the crossing guard.”
The Athens-Clarke County Police Department identified 12 top areas for traffic accidents, with the downtown district taking first place.
Lay-Z Shopper is a 24-hour convenience store, located in the heart of congested downtown Athens. Lay-Z Shopper worker Joseph Weis clocks out at 5 a.m. every night and walks home on Clayton Street. This after-hours lifestyle exposes him to even greater pedestrian risks.
“I’ve had more than a couple instances where I’ve almost been hit by cars walking home from work,” said Weis.
According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, pedestrian crashes at night are far more likely to be fatal, especially on dark roads without lighting. Over 80% of pedestrian fatalities occur between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m.
“I really think more enforcement of distracted driving would make me feel safer,” said Christina Proctor, a regular runner and public health professor at the University of Georgia.
Other pedestrians share similar perspectives. “They (police) just need to have more of a presence, especially late at night,” said Weis.
UGA’s police force is working closely with Athens-Clarke and neighboring counties to accommodate recent changes in driving behavior and corresponding safety risks. The city will be investing in sophisticated camera systems over the next three years, to better detect distracted driving and vehicular-pedestrian accidents downtown.
“The new systems are designed to focus on high traffic pedestrian and vehicle areas,” said Daniel Silk, chief of the University of Georgia police department. “They will really give us the ability, like with vehicle accidents, to frequently go after the fact and figure out what happened.”
Public health in the United States often corresponds with socioeconomics and the pandemic has further widened this class-based safety gap for pedestrians.
All pedestrians in Georgia need protection as driving behavior and pedestrian risks continue to evolve. Athens and other vulnerable communities require extra attention in the form of governmental policies aimed to improve physical infrastructure for pedestrians, as well as increased education and enforcement of dangerous driving behaviors.
“They (Athens Police) could do more,” said Hall.
Eloise Cappelletti is a journalism major at the University of Georgia.
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