By Joe Johnson
People are dying on Athens-Clarke County roadways at a record-breaking pace.
In less than two full months of 2021, seven people have died as the result of vehicle crashes, with the last death occurring Monday from injuries sustained in a Feb. 13 head-on collision on Atlanta Highway.
During the same time period last year there was only one traffic fatality, according to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
The same time periods in 2019 and 2017 also saw just one traffic fatality, according to the GOHS. There were no highway deaths in the first two months of 2018 and 2016, and 2015 saw 2 deaths in that same time period in Athens-Clarke County.
There were 15 total traffic deaths last year, and 11 each in 2019 and 2018.
Finding explanations for the dramatic increase in traffic deaths this year is difficult.
It comes at a time when ACCPD’s Traffic Unit is decimated. The unit has an authorized staffing level of 16 officers and three supervisors, but is currently operating with only five officers and two supervisors, according to police Public Information Officer Lt. Shaun Barnett.
When asked if there might be a correlation between the record number of traffic fatalities and Traffic Unit understaffing, Classic City News received the following response from Deputy Chief Jeff Clark, who is in charge of the Operational Support Bureau:
“Given both COVID-19 and the climate of policing we see nationwide, enforcement is down nationally. Whether this directly correlates with the number of traffic-related fatalities we experience in Athens-Clarke County would require further study.”
Clarke noted that the Traffic Unit has been understaffed for at least the past five years.
When asked directly about staffing of the unit, and whether police personnel were being focused on areas of police services other than traffic enforcement, Clark said, “I don’t want to get into the operations of the department and where we staff officers.
“However, there is a reason this unit is staffed the way it is. We are aware and looking for ways to address it,” the deputy police chief said.