Message boards on interstate reflect grim reality

Message boards on interstate reflect grim reality (Image 1)

Every day thousands of motorist pass under message boards that flash the total amount of deaths on Tennessee's roadways.

Monday the boards started showing a comparison between 2011 and 2012. According to the boards there have been 928 fatalities so far in 2012 compared to 937 in 2011.

According to the Governor's Highway Safety Office, this time last year the number of roadway fatalities was 871, which is 57 fewer than the current number of fatalities.
At this pace, Tennessee is set to surpass last year's numbers.

One of those fatalities was Steffanie Leonard, 29, of Franklin who was killed in a head-on collision on Interstate 65 the morning of Ash Wednesday.  Leonard was on her way to work when she was killed.

“I think right now we are just taking it day by day and just trying to learn how to live through this new normal,” Leonard's sister Jennifer Leonard said.

Rebecca Benson, 23, pleaded guilty in November to vehicular homicide and reckless endangerment. After the wreck police on scene said Benson told them she thought she was in the backseat of a cab, not behind the wheel of her car.

A judge sentenced Benson to a 10-year sentence with two years to serve in jail and eight years of probation. She also lost her driver license for the 10 year period.

“There are things you already value but now you value them even more,” Leonard's mother Marti Leonard said.

The family has started working with MADD and other organizations to raise awareness about drunk driving. 

They are also speaking out for tougher DUI laws and accountability for bars that choose to serve impaired customers.

The message boards are a tool the family thinks offers a sobering reminder for drivers.

“I really didn't pay attention to those boards before the accident,” Leonard's sister Rebekah Leonard said. “But, every since then I watch every time I go on the interstate how those numbers go up and how fast they go up.”

The Leonards are also reminded that for each person represented in the fatalities there are a number of other family members affected.

“I multiply that by at least by four and I say my lord that is almost 4,000 people that their whole lives are changed,” Leonard's mother said. “I definitely don't want this to happen to them or anyone else.”

TDOT has not said whether the fatality tally will continue to be displayed on message boards going into 2013.
Emmons said the commissioner has not made that decision yet.

“When we started the campaign back in the spring the commissioner said that he hoped seeing this number would be a sobering reminder,” TDOT Spokeswoman Beth Emmons said.

She continued, “A reminder he thought might change driving habits that are contributing to these crashes.

Wednesday afternoon the Leonards will join with others to remember people who died on Tennessee's highways as a result of impaired driving.

In 2011, an estimated 320 lives were lost due to alcohol and drug related traffic accidents on Tennessee highways.

The Governor's Highway Safety Office in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies will have an impaired driving press event at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel Wednesday at Noon.

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