State Transportation Board member Ann Purcell spoke to the Exchange Club on Thursday to discuss ongoing roads projects and to preach a message of safety on the roads.
There have been more than 1,000 fatalities on Georgia’s roads since Jan. 1, according to the state Department of Transportation. At the same time last year, there were 863 traffic-related deaths.
“It is our largest increase in fatalities in nine years,” Purcell said.
Purcell implored drives to wear their seat belts and pointed out the DOT’s “Drive Alert, Arrive Alive” campaign for road safety.
“One of the ways you can help decrease fatalities is to buckle up,” she said. “We need to take responsibility for what is going on. Don’t continue to drive — we’ve had so many accidents with the driver. We need to stay alert.”
Purcell said drivers who start to fatigue need to pull over and either rest or get out of the vehicle in a safe place and walk around to
She also pointed out that 78 percent of traffic fatalities are a result of single-vehicle accidents and it is believed that distracted driving is a major culprit.
“How many times have you seen people reading a book going down the road? How many times have you seen people texting? That’s one of the worst things you could do,” Purcell said. “A high percentage of our accidents are because of cell phones. Don’t be tempted — turn it off.”
Bayne Smith, the state DOT director of field services, also brought up the sharp increase in traffic fatalities when he spoke the Effingham Chamber of Commerce community retreat in August.
“It’s a real issue,” he said. “This year, the numbers are headed in the wrong direction. We have a really big campaign in the department to try to address this problem. Put that cell phone somewhere else. No one’s life is worth checking a text or an email.”
Purcell added the state board of public safety, in its meeting at Effingham County High School last month, saw a message to ECHS students on eliminating driver distractions.
“The top priority is the safety of the individuals who use the roads,” she said.
Among the ongoing and future road work in Effingham, the Highway 80 bridge over the Ogeechee River is expected to be finished by December or January, Purcell said. The new span also should be an upgrade in safety.
“That bridge was so old and so narrow, when I saw an 18-wheeler coming, I would close my eyes,” Purcell joked, “thinking it would be better to close my eyes so I won’t see it coming.”
The old bridge will be demolished after the new one is open.
“Progress is being made, progress that needs to be made,” Purcell said.
She also took note of the Laurel Street enhancement program that is planned, and the state will be resurfacing a section of Highway 21 from Rincon to Jack’s Branch.
There also is a contractor in place to begin work on the diverging diamond, the proposed solution for the Highway 21/Interstate 95 interchange.
“We hope to have some action down there in January,” she said. “Folks, just be patient because it’s going to be something you like. It’s going to move our traffic. It will improve the traffic and improve traffic coming off the interstate. People can turn more readily. It’s a good thing, but it’s one of those things you’re going to have to a little patience.”
Smith said the diverging diamond eliminates the number of simultaneous movements in traffic at a congested interchange such as the one in Port Wentworth.
“It’s much, more efficient operation, under the right conditions,” he said. “It takes a little getting used to.”
Purcell also extolled the effects of House Bill 170, the transportation funding measure adopted earlier this year that changed the state’s motor fuel taxes to an excise tax.
“Please say thank you to legislators for House Bill 170,” she said. “I’m telling you, we would not be where we are today if it weren’t for House Bill 170 and the funds that will come in. They bit the bullet. The excise tax is the way to go. It’s not based on just the sales tax. It’s not based on the 7 percent. It is based on a constant term, so you have a better idea of what’s coming in.”
With the new funding stream, the DOT is expected to have a better idea of how much money it will collect and in turn, have to spend on road maintenance and building.
“You can’t plan ahead if you don’t know if you have the money,” Purcell said. “So we have many projects sitting on go in the 1st Congressional District that if that money comes in, we will be able to move those projects forward and make our roads safer. To see the projects we have ready to go would surprise. But we cannot let the projects if we don’t have the money to pay them.”
Purcell said she visited a bridge in Pierce County, one of the 17 counties she represents on the state transportation board, and looked at the pilings under the bridge. The holes were big enough, she said, that she could stick her hand through them.
“Now that’s scary,” she said.
Many of the state’s bridges are aging, Purcell added, and the detour around the deteriorating Pierce County bridge was a 10-to-15-mile journey. The money from HB 170 has enabled to the DOT to have the new bridge ready by January.
“You’re going to be seeing some things going on that could not have happened without House Bill 170,” she said.