Worst States For
BY KEN LITTLE
At any given moment, there may be hundreds of unlicensed, uninsured or suspended drivers on Greene County roads.
Law enforcement agencies continue an aggressive effort to curb illegal driving behavior, and enforce speed limits and other safety-oriented laws like Tennessee's seat belt requirement.
While it is difficult to quantify how effective the ongoing campaign is, officials like Craig Fillers, Greeneville police assistant chief, think the effort is making local roads safer.
"We're still trying to work traffic pretty hard because Greene County had one of the (highest) traffic fatality rates in the state," Fillers said.
Fatality crashes from all causes in Greene County total 82 over the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, including 17 in 2012.
SPEEDING TICKETS ISSUED
Greeneville police issued 249 speeding tickets in April, the same number of tickets handed out in May.
"Those things are running fairly consistent," Fillers said.
Greeneville police investigated 70 highway crashes in April. Of that total, 19 involved injuries and the other 51 involved property damage only.
In May, 65 highway crashes were investigated by Greeneville police. There was one pedestrian fatality, 19 other crashes with injuries and 45 property damage crashes.
"What we're trying to do with enforcement is address these as far as injuries," Fillers said.
In many instances, drivers with suspended or revoked licenses don't have vehicle insurance. Many traffic stops also result in charges for impaired driving, drugs or other violations.
Recent studies have shown that as many as one in four drivers on Tennessee roads drive with no insurance.
Tennessee is tied for the third-highest ratio of uninsured drivers in the U.S., according to a 2011 study by the Insurance Research Council (IRC).
The five states with the highest uninsured driver estimates were Mississippi, 28 percent; New Mexico, 26 percent; and Tennessee, Oklahoma and Florida, all at 24 percent. Figures used are from 2009.
"I think that's a continuing problem. I don't know whether to attribute that to the economy or (with the economy), it's way down on the priority list of people," Fillers said.
Many people charged with driving on a revoked or suspended license don't have insurance on their vehicle, Fillers said.
"The two go hand-in-hand," he said.
Some drivers end up with a suspended license after ignoring fines imposed for tickets, Greeneville police Chief Terry Cannon said.
"There's so many people who don't pay their tickets and get their license suspended. This is a sign that times are hard," Cannon said.
SEAT BELTS ONE FOCUS
Sobriety checkpoints are common in East Tennessee. But the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) and other agencies also have regular checkpoints intended to get unlicensed and uninsured drivers off the road, Cannon said.
Police on patrol can spot drivers who are not wearing seat belts, which can lead to other charges, Cannon said.
"If you see they don't have their belt buckled, you can stop them," he said. "If you got a good officer and he makes a regular traffic stop, a good alert officer notices things in the car."
Prosecutors are well aware of the situation with uninsured and unlicensed drivers.
"It is a problem," said Cecil Mills Jr., an assistant district attorney general in the Third Judicial District.
Uninsured drivers contribute to increased car insurance rates paid by law-abiding citizens, according to the IRC.
Uninsured drivers involved in a wreck can also be held liable for large sums of money.
"Being uninsured can spell financial disaster," the IRC study said. "Drivers without insurance who have an accident could be sued for significant sums of money in damages, with no insurance to cover losses."
The IRC estimates that one in seven drivers nationwide are uninsured.
Agencies like the THP are also going after unlicensed drivers and those who don't use safety restraints.
THP statistics show that 602 seat belt and child restraint seat citations were issued in Greene County in 2012, compared with 466 in 2011.
Overall, the THP issued 9,742 citations in 2012 in Greene County, compared with 8,446 in 2011.
That's the fourth-highest total among all counties in Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security.
The THP made 113 driving under the influence arrests in 2012 in Greene County, compared with 87 DUI arrests in 2011 and 58 in 2010.
Drivers with revoked or suspended licenses may be driving for illegitimate purposes, Sheriff Steve Burns said.
That ties into the ongoing effort to stop burglaries and thefts before they occur.
"We've been trying to be aggressive. We investigate a lot of thefts and burglaries and a lot of those people, when they're stopped, they're revoked," Burns said.
The sheriff's department "has a zero tolerance" for uninsured drivers, Burns said.
"If you're on the road, you need insurance," he said.
Law enforcement details concentrating on drivers not wearing seat belts or who are unlicensed, uninsured or suspended, are staged when funds are available to pay for overtime for deputies.
"We have to pick certain times of the year to have additional patrols," Burns said. "When you're saturating areas, you're doing aggressive patrols and you're stopping more vehicles, you're going to make more of those kinds of arrests."