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Big drop for Rusk County traffic fatalities

By Reese Gordon
Feb. 23, 2014 at 11 p.m.

HENDERSON - Rusk County officials are knocking on wood and crossing their fingers that the county's lack of fatalities on roadways since the new year will continue.

Sgt. David Roberts, spokesman for the Rusk County Sheriff's Office, said Thursday that no fatal wrecks have occurred in the county since Jan. 1.

Almost 30 people were killed on Rusk County roadways in 2013, prompting county officials to take action.

Roberts said he can't pinpoint one reason for the change, but said educating young people about the dangers of texting and driving has resulted in a change in attitude of students.

"We held a traffic fatality summit Wednesday where a video was shown depicting the results of alcohol-related crashes and those in which people were killed because they weren't paying attention," he said. "The video was produced solely by high school students from an Atlanta, Georgia, school district."

"I tell the kids that I don't care how good they think they are texting and driving, you can't do it," Roberts said. "It's bad enough when (the Rusk County Sheriff's Office gets) a call and are driving 70, 80, 90 miles per hour. We have to worry about everyone on the roads, and who is to say one of these drivers won't pull out in front of us because they weren't paying attention?"

Rusk County Judge Joel Hale called the county's first summit in July to discuss the high number of traffic deaths.

According to TxDOT, the national yearly average for traffic deaths is five fatalities per 100,000 people. By comparison, Rusk County had 28 traffic deaths in 2013 and had a population of about 54,000 people in 2012.

Kamila Brown, public health coordinator for Rusk County, said talking to every school district in the county about the dangers of distracted driving is key to reducing the number of fatal wrecks going forward.

Brown is involved with Pay Attention East Texas (PAET), whose mission is to promote a safe driving environment through public education and safety awareness.

"It's just about education and making sure people are aware," she said. "That's why we are trying to focus on the young people. As they grow up and start driving, responsible driving will become a lifestyle, and we won't have to have to do these talks anymore."

Students at school districts in Rusk County last fall received wrist bands that say, "DRIVE SAFE-SAVE LIVES DNT TX N DRV," Brown said.

Roberts said Brown's efforts in promoting safe driving have enabled him to have effective one-on-one conversations with students.

"She's had me go to five different church groups on Wednesday nights to talk to youth groups," he said. "I can really sit down and talk to the kids and they can ask me questions. It also gives me an opportunity to talk to them about drugs."

He said he has been approached by students who told him they prevent their parents and guardians from texting while driving.

"I was at Carlisle ISD recently, and a student told me he has taken away his grandmother's phone because she was texting on the road with him in the vehicle," Roberts said.

While some larger cities in Texas, such as Arlington, have banned texting while driving, Roberts said he thinks it would be difficult to impose that restriction in Rusk County.

The Kilgore City Council voted against enacting a ban on texting while driving in 2011.



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