Athens-Clarke traffic fatalities occurring in record pace during relaxed enforcement due to pandemic
By Joe Johnson
Athens-Clarke County is on pace this year to set a new record high for the number of fatal crashes on local roadways.
According to statistics provided by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, there have been 12 traffic fatalities in the first six and a half months of 2021, compared with seven fatalities last year and just three in 2019.
If the rate of fatal crashes continues at the current rate, it would surpass the record high set in 2009, when 16 people were killed in vehicle crashes in the county.
“Going back to 2016, we have averaged 5.8 fatal vehicle crashes at this point of the year,” said Jonathan McIlvaine, commanding officer of ACCPD’s Traffic Unit.
“If you do the math, we are at a 106.9-percent increase above historical averages” for highway fatalities, he said.
Lt. Shaun Barnett, public information for ACCPD said that trend was not specific to Athens-Clarke County because of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
“There has been an increase in fatal crash events across Georgia and throughout the nation over the same time period,” he said. “Obviously, the time frame of this increase coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the pandemic are a likely contributor to the increase in fatal crash events. ACCPD will continue to address roadway safety by proactively enforcing traffic laws and collaborating with other departments and agencies to ensure our streets and highways are safe.
Don Eckert, chief investigator for the Athens-Clarke County Solicitor General’s Office was in the Traffic Unit for 17 years, before leaving as unit commander in 2017.
Eckert said he believed that there was a correlation between deadly crashes and the decreased enforcement of traffic laws due to the pandemic.
“Logically speaking, the more people see officers pulling people over for violations, the more they might change their driving behavior,” he said. “That’s the goal of law enforcement, that compliance will keep people from being killed.”
Oftentimes, vehicles stopped for such violations as speeding and failure to maintain lane lead to more serious charges like DUI, which takes impaired motorists off the road and prevents potential fatal crashes.
In 2019, 23,493 traffic cases were prosecuted in Athens-Clarke County Municipal Court, as opposed to just 8,833 prosecuted in 2020, when the pandemic began in March of that year.
Due to a statewide Judicial Emergency declared by the Georgia Supreme Court, all trials came to a halt and police officers began to enforce fewer traffic violations for such less-serious offenses as improper lane change and failure to maintain lane, following another vehicle too closely and speeding at 24 mph or more over the speed limit.
The number of traffic cases that were dismissed in Municipal Court more than doubled, from 2,209 in 2019 to 4,613 in 2020. The court has not yet compiled statistics for 2021.
“The reason for this increase in dismissals developed from the unique challenges created by the pandemic,” Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm said.
One challenge was the need to reduce the number of people coming to the courthouse so that so as to not create an unsafe environment for citizens and courthouse personnel, he said.
“Another challenge came from the statewide judicial emergency issued by the Supreme Court which prohibited some court activities, including jury trials,” Chisholm said. “Without the eventuality of cases reaching disposition by jury trials, we knew the backlog could be insurmountable, depending on the length of the judicial emergency. Therefore, we needed to dismiss certain cases, not all cases, to allow us to focus on our most serious cases once we returned to full court operations, including jury trials.”
The non-traffic cases that were not dismissed included those involving domestic violence and theft or when the facts and circumstances of the case, or the defendant’s history warranted further prosecution, Chisholm said.
“As for the traffic cases, we did not dismiss any of the cases categorized as serious traffic offenses under Georgia law, which includes reckless driving and DUI, due to pandemic challenges,” the prosecutor said.
According to Chisholm, the process of returning to prosecuting all cases began in the spring when ACCPD asked if his office could start prosecuting distracted driver cases again “based on observations they had been making and we agreed to do so.”
“Beginning July 1, we also started prosecuting stop sign violations and violations of traffic control devices,” Chisholm said. “Now that the judicial emergency, which did not allow for jury trials, has ended and the courthouse has fewer Covid restrictions, we will begin prosecuting all traffic cases in Municipal Court again. We expect this to resume beginning in August.”