Panel takes on challenge of reducing road deaths

The North Carolina Department of Transportation announced a pilot program for Robeson County last week that has an impossible goal, but one that a blue-ribbon panel of local leaders is willing to chase.

Vision Zero is an effort to reduce to zero the number of traffic fatalities each year in Robeson County, which simply cannot be achieved, but in that effort it is reasonable to expect that tragedies can be significantly reduced.

Robeson County was picked because, at an average of 43 deaths per year for the five years from 2012 through 2016, it had the highest number of traffic fatalities per-capita of any county in North Carolina.

That Robeson County is large and blessed with so many miles of major highway in all directions — Interstate 95, U.S. 74, N.C. 211, N.C. 41, N.C. 20, N.C. 711, N.C. 72, to name a few — mostly works to our benefit, but in this instance helps explain why we are stained with this sorry statistic. Unfortunately, we are off to a deadly start to 2018, which only highlights the need for the initiative.

The task force includes an impressive collection: Sheriff Ken Sealey; Dr. Robin Cummings, chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke; Johnson Britt, district attorney; Shanita Wooten, interim superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County; Joanne Anderson, president and CEO of Southeastern Health; Sgt. Phillip Collins, N.C. Highway Patrol; Gail Albertson, transportation manager at Mountaire Farms; Kimberly Gold, president of Robeson Community College; Ricky Harris, county manager; and Grady Hunt, a local attorney who sits on the board of the Department of Transportation.

The task force has been assigned to look at all things that are contributing to the high number of road deaths, ranging from road infrastructure to human behavior.

There is an obvious starting point. The number people killed in traffic accidents during that five-year period who were not wearing seat belts or otherwise properly restrained was 42 percent, well above the state average, which at 34 percent is also an unacceptable number. Education and outreach we are sure would reduce the number of people who gamble with their lives by not taking the few seconds it takes to buckle themself up or properly restrain a child.

Robeson County, thankfully and surprisingly, is slightly below the state average for the number of traffic fatalities that involves someone driving impaired. But at just higher than 30 percent, the percentage remains unacceptable. Again, education and outreach can lower that number.

This newspaper reports traffic fatalities, and it seems to us motorists would benefit if they understood better how to respond when a vehicle drifts to the shoulder of the road. And that is not to jerk the wheel, but return it slowly to the road. Overcorrection is often cited as a cause for deadly accidents.

The Department of Transportation, in announcing Vision Zero, provided a plethora of information concerning road deaths, including the ages and race of those dying, that we found interesting but probably not helpful in this mission. But there was also information concerning where these deaths are occurring that likely could be used to make those stretches of road safer.

This task force, flush as it is with leaders who know how to plow new ground, will surely come up with a multitude of other initiatives that can lower the number of tragedies on our local roads. It successes will be watched and hopefully emulated elsewhere.

This newspaper pledges its assistance in that effort to make our roads less deadly.

Said Hunt: “Those deaths are our friends and neighbors and even our family members. Simply put, these deaths are not acceptable.”