By Ed Brock
Ask just about anybody in Clayton or Henry counties and more than likely they'll have an Interstate-75 horror story.
"It was late on a Sunday night, it was dark and it was raining," said Rebecca Emberger of Hampton regarding her last accident on the interstate that occurred in October.
Emberger said she travels I-75 regularly to visit her boyfriend in Marietta.
"This guy behind me was following a little too closely. The car in front of me stopped suddenly (due to roadwork) and the next thing I knew I was being bumped," Emberger said.
The number of accidents on the stretch of I-75 that passes through Clayton and Henry counties surged upward in 2001 by more than 200 cases and continues to stay well over 1,000 accidents a year.
In 2000 there were 947 accidents along the interstate in Clayton County and 983 on the stretch of I-75 running through Henry County, according to statistics from Clayton County Traffic Engineering and the Henry County Bureau of Police Services. In 2001 there were 1,155 accidents in Clayton and 1,249 in Henry, and the next year I-75 saw 1,142 accidents in Clayton County and 1,256 in Henry.
At the same time, traffic flow on the interstate in 2000 and 2001 dropped in both counties, then rose to even higher levels in 2002.
According to Georgia Department of Transportation information the Annual Average Daily Travel rate for I-75 in Clayton County was 1,057,021 vehicles in 2000, 997,600 vehicles in 2001 and then 1,131,737 in 2002. In Henry County those numbers were 790,202 in 2000, 680,700 in 2001 and 874,793 in 2002.
The construction projects on the highway that began around 2001 are probably the biggest cause of the trend, Morrow police Capt. R.H. Murphy said.
"I can tell you every time they're working out there," Murphy said, a 17-year veteran of the Morrow police force. "Every time they clean up and go, the number of accidents goes back down ? It reduces lanes and clogs things up, makes rough shoulders and all other contributing factors."
At the same time, the roadwork could explain the corresponding drop in traffic on the highway as local drivers chose to use back roads instead, Murphy said.
Felicia Holmes of Jonesboro generally uses I-75 on a regular basis to go to church in Atlanta and to visit her sister in Marietta.
"I do a lot of travel on (U.S. Highway) 19/41 and (Ga. Highway) 138 just to get away from the construction," said Holmes, who moved to Clayton County five years ago. "I was so excited to find Highway 138."
Roadwork may be one factor in accidents, said Clayton County police Capt. Tom Israel, head of the Clayton County's traffic enforcement division and the Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic Unit for both counties.
"But it's a combination of several things," Israel said.
Police in both counties are quick to point to some of those other factors.
"I think the most important thing is excessive speed," said Sgt. Brian Danekes, a member of the HEAT Unit in Clayton County. "Especially when we have inclement weather, people just don't slow down."
A multiple car accident that occurred June 7 on I-75 near the border between two counties emphasized Danekes' point. In police reports the drivers of some of the more than 20 cars involved in the accident said poor visibility from the heavy rainstorms that swept the area that day was one reason they ran into the back of other vehicles.
Inclement weather may have contributed to another accident that cost Holmes some commute time Friday morning.
"But I can't blame it on the rain," Holmes said. "These people can't drive in the sunshine."
As for reports that the accident began when an animal ran out into the road, Danekes said the important thing to remember in that situation is not to stop suddenly in the middle of the roadway.
"Everyone's reaction is going to be to avoid the animal," Danekes said. "But even if you run over the animal, that can cause an accident."
In Henry County, police respond to an "inordinate amount of deer/ car collisions, Henry County police Lt. Joe Tammaro said. But one driver following too closely is responsible for about a quarter of the accidents that occur, Tammaro said.
From June 1996 to June 2002, following too close was a factor in 1,536 of the 4,354 accidents that occurred on I-75 in Henry county in that time frame, according to the Henry County Police Crash Statistical Report. That's 35 percent of the number of crashes.
"If you have anything preoccupying you while driving you put yourself at risk," Tammaro said. "And if you're impaired on any substance you shouldn't be out of your house in the first place. You certainly shouldn't be driving."
Cell phones seem to be a common distraction on Georgia highways, said New York native Jennifer Goldman of Stockbridge.
"They need to make that law banning cell phones (in cars) like they have in New York. It's ridiculous what you see here," Goldman said. "They give you a ticket in New York, and it's a big ticket."
Other factors listed in the Henry County report are improper lane change, making up 9 percent of the accidents in the report's time frame, and an object or animal in the road that lead to 7 percent of the accidents.
In Clayton County rear-end collisions were the most common accident on the interstate from 2000 to 2002. Sideswipes from cars traveling in the same direction were the second most common kind of collision. The numbers are so far reversed in 2003, with 167 sideswipe accidents and 10 rear-end collisions.