After pulling people out of wrecks for 35 years as a volunteer firefighter, Bob Edmundson is dismayed to learn that North Carolina's traffic death toll last year was the worst in three decades.
"I've seen more death on the highway than I'd like to think about," said Edmundson, 65, who answers the call for northern Wake County's Bay Leaf Fire Department.
Firefighters often are at crash scenes before ambulances arrive and after tow trucks leave.
"You would hope people would be more careful today," Edmundson said. "The roads themselves should be safer than they were in the past."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week that North Carolina logged 1,675 traffic fatalities in 2007; state officials said their count was even higher: 1,705 people killed. Either number makes 2007 the bloodiest year since 1973, when the state counted 1,892 crash deaths. Death counts have fallen back to previous levels during the first half of 2008, officials say.
"Is it teenagers?" asked Edmundson, a retired state worker. "Is it people driving drunk? Is it people who have no license, and maybe don't understand our rules, who are dying and causing deaths?"
Statistics and news stories indicate that it is all these things. But safety experts and law enforcement officials say they have not found any clear trend or single cause in last year's numbers.
"Speed remains the number one cause," said Lt. Everett Clendenin, spokesman for the state Highway Patrol. "Alcohol is also involved in a lot of these fatalities.
"From time to time, there'll be a spike in highway deaths. It's just one year that it spiked. So far this year, we're significantly down."
Bruce Lyon of Raleigh, a retired New York state police officer, wants to see a stepped-up effort by law enforcement to stop dangerous driving across North Carolina.
"It's frustrating," said Lyon, 66, who has lived here since 1998. "If you're doing 65, they're doing 95. You expect somebody to yield, and they don't.
"I talk to troopers, and I ask them why people here don't signal before they change lanes. They say to me, 'We don't enforce that unless there's an accident.' I mean, you gotta be kidding me.
"If you go into Virginia, you don't dare go fast on I-85 between the end of our state and Richmond. The police are up there, and people know they're up there. So they slow down and take it easy."
Clendenin said that, with 1,800 troopers statewide, North Carolina's Highway Patrol is stretched thin.
"So obviously there's a lot more people driving on the highway than troopers," Clendenin said. "We're out there doing our part, doing what we can to try to combat that DWI problem in our state."
Lyon said North Carolina could use 1,500 more troopers to slow traffic, stop dump trucks that throw rocks and mud on the road, and enforce other safety laws.
"That's the legislature," he said. "They ought to hire a slew of them and let them get out there and do their jobs."
Edmundson wants state experts to dig into the grim statistics and let drivers know where the worst dangers are.
"Meanwhile, we just have to be prepared to protect ourselves when we're out there," Edmundson said.
"And just hope for the best."
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