Inside Report: Traffic fatalities historic problem in EBR

BY RYAN BROUSSARD

Advocate staff writer

For six of the last seven years, East Baton Rouge Parish led the state in traffic fatalities — a statistic that appears to be improving, thanks, say Louisiana State Police officials, to education campaigns.

In 2011, East Baton Rouge led the state with 46 fatal automobile crashes and 50 total fatalities, according to the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

The 2012 figures are not yet available.

John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, said the East Baton Rouge statistics can be attributed to three factors: high population, alcohol use and low compliance with the state law, R.S. 32:295.1, that requires seat belt use.

“Our heaviest-populated centers tend to have the most fatal and injury accidents simply because there are more miles being driven,” LeBlanc said.

“The lower our (seat belt) compliance rate is, the more chances that if someone is involved in a crash, they could be killed or injured,” he said .

Only Monroe and Alexandria have lower seat belt compliance rates than Baton Rouge, LeBlanc said.

The rate is roughly calculated in an annual survey in which survey workers look into vehicles at designated times and areas to determine how many drivers and front seat passengers are wearing their seat belts, LeBlanc said.

You have to go back to 2006 to find a year when East Baton Rouge did not lead the state in both number of fatal crashes and fatalities. That year, Calcasieu Parish led the state with 60 fatal crashes and 67 fatalities. East Baton Rouge was tied for second in fatal crashes and third in fatalities.

So far this year, Ouachita Parish leads the state with 10 fatalities and seven fatal crashes. East Baton Rouge is eighth, with three fatalities and two fatal crashes.

The location of interstate highways may have some effect on those statistics.

LeBlanc said interstates are safer because there are fewer intersections, meaning not as many T-bone accidents, and because they are maintained better than rural roads.

Statewide in 2011, about 84 fatal accidents occurred on interstate highways, 117 on federal highways and 297 on state roads. In East Baton Rouge that year, seven fatal accidents occurred on interstates, seven on federal highways, 15 on state roads. In addition, East Baton Rouge had six fatal accidents on parish roads and 11 on city roads and streets.

LeBlanc says education programs are working to decrease fatalities, noting that total statewide traffic fatalities fell from 993 in 2007 to 677 in 2011.

Trooper 1st Class Jared Sandifer, spokesman for State Police Troop A, which covers most of the state and federal highways in East Baton Rouge along with highways in eight surrounding parishes, said the recent reprieve in traffic deaths could be attributed to a number of factors, including the stretch of good weather in the area and the completion of construction on sections of Interstate 10.

In the past, construction had been the cause of some crashes, Sandifer said.

LeBlanc, however, said the construction was not a major factor in the LHSC data.

“Every death is very important and we don’t want to lose one, but when you look at the rest of the numbers, the construction numbers are small,” LeBlanc said, referring to the number of deaths from crashes in construction zones.

LeBlanc said lowering the traffic death statistics relies most heavily on one factor: drivers.

“When you’re driving, your focus should be on the driving and nothing else,” he said. “If people can focus on that and not drink and drive, and wear their seat belts, this fatality rate will improve greatly.”

Advocate staff writer Ryan Broussard covers police news in East Baton Rouge Parish. He can be reached at rybroussard@theadvocate.com.