Originally created 08/08/06

Wreck deaths on rise again



An early-morning wreck at the intersection of Peach Orchard and Hephzibah-McBean roads Monday resulted in the death of a Grovetown man and marks the latest fatality in another bloody year on Georgia's highways.

Frank G. Johnson, 38, of the 200 block of James Street, died when his 1986 GMC Jimmy was struck by a car driven by Hilton Bruce Ward III at about 4 a.m.

Mr. Ward, 31, of the 700 block of Georgia Highway 24 South in Waynesboro, is charged with vehicular homicide in the first degree, driving under the influence and running a stop sign, according to Richmond County sheriff's Major Richard Weaver.

Mr. Johnson, a circulation employee of The Augusta Chronicle, was airlifted to the Medical College of Georgia trauma center and pronounced dead at 6:38 a.m., Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said.

Across Georgia, traffic fatalities are edging close to last year's tally. In 2005, traffic deaths spiked by 20 percent and totaled 1,744, said Norm Cressman, the safety program manager for the Georgia Department of Transportation. That was the first time highway fatalities had surpassed 1,700, he said, but it might not be the last.

"I would like to say it wouldn't, but right now all indications are that we are (going to exceed that number)," Mr. Cressman said.

As of Monday, there were 917 reported traffic fatalities on Georgia roads, about a 5 percent increase over the same period of 2005. He said that the official list hasn't been released yet but that the reported numbers already show a jump.

Richmond County has not been immune to the trend. By the end of June, the most recent period for which statistics are available, 20 people had died in traffic accidents. That is eight shy of the total number in 2005, according to Dennis Ellis, a traffic engineer in Augusta's Public Works and Engineering Department.

Through the same period last year the total was 16, but Mr. Ellis said it's not unusual to see the number go up and down.

"It's been doing that for all the 16 years I've been here," he said. "It peaks one year, valleys the next."

As of Sunday, South Carolina was on the down slope of the valley.

The state has seen deaths decline by 95 compared to this time last year, according to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety's Web site. Last year, 1,099 people lost their lives on South Carolina highways, the state's second-worst year for fatalities. Officials from the Department of Public Safety attribute the decline to a new safety-belt law, which took effect in December, and an increase in trooper strength, according to a news release.

Georgia officials were less certain of the reasons for the state's increase.

Mr. Cressman said that while a rise in the popularity of motorcycles might have led to some of the accidents, there is no single factor.

Richmond County sheriff's Col. Gary Powell attributes the county's death rate to speeding drivers and drinking.

"Most of them involve alcohol," he said.

Though Mr. Ellis said that more young people are driving - raising the chances of a deadly wreck - he said that he was surprised by the overall increase in the number of drivers in Richmond County.

"I would have guessed with the way gas prices were this would have been a very low year," Mr. Ellis said. "My guess was a bad guess."

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

TRAFFIC FATALITIES


In Georgia


- Total for 2005: 1,744


- Reported deaths as of Monday: 917


- As of same time last year: 876

In South Carolina


- Reported deaths as of Sunday: 573


- As of same time last year: 668

In Richmond County


- Total for 2005: 28


- Through June 30: 20

Sources: Georgia Department of Transportation, South Carolina Department of Public Safety, Augusta Public Works and Engineering Department