MEMPHIS, TN (abc24.com) - Only four months into the year, there have been nearly 300 deaths on Tennessee highways. The rate is so much higher than last year that the state isn't waiting for more deaths, they're taking back the roads.
Tennessee drivers will begin noticing overhead message boards on highways flashing a count of how many people have been killed on roadways since New Year's Day. As of April 27, that number is 288, which is 27 more than the same time in 2011.
It's a number that's not surprising for 83-year-old Bess McGhee. "Every time you get out," she says, "you have to watch people changing lanes and speeding looking away. You have to drive defensively."
She's never been in an accident but thinks she's in the minority. Ron Richardson says texting is to blame for all the accidents. "Just coming down the street we were following a lady texting in the middle of the road and she was doing about 20 miles per hour and everyone around her was doing about 40." Richardson says, "My highway safety feelings right now are pretty low."
The Tennessee Department of Transportation says after years of record setting reductions in highway fatalities, this dramatic increase is alarming. There were 16 more deaths in January 2012 than January 2011, and 24 more in March 2012 versus March 2011.
Half of this year's deaths involved drivers who were not wearing a seat belt. The State is now taking action. The Tennessee Highway Patrol is increasing seat belt and DUI enforcement. Along with a daily fatality count, overhead message boards along interstates will also flash safety messages about seat belts, texting and speed.
McGhee says, "It's a good thing for them to monitor it."
Richardson's already noticed a change in enforcement and hopes that results in a change in drivers. "I've noticed they're trying to control the speed on I-240 and I-55 which is good because I've never seen people speed as fast on a road as they do on that road sometimes."
TDOT is using crash information to determine where roadway safety improvements can be made, including additional rumble strips that alert drivers when they leave the road and reflective raised pavement markers.
There is no timetable on how long the campaign will last.