By Gail Kerr, The Tennessean
To Jennifer Leonard, the interstate signs flashing highway fatality statistics are not just morbid numbers. One of them is her sister.
Leonard was driving her routine commute from Franklin to Nashville on the frigid morning of Feb. 22 last year, when traffic came to an abrupt halt before she passed the Harding exit.
A deadly wreck had traffic at a standstill. Leonard didn't take it personally. Until she was forced to.
She did what all of us do: worry she would be late for work, wonder if she would have better luck getting off the interstate.
Then her father called her cellphone.
"He said, 'You need to get home,' " Leonard recalls. "He said, 'That wreck on the interstate? That was Steffanie.' I asked where they were taking her, so I could meet them there. He told me she didn't make it."
Her younger sister by 8 1/2 years, age 29, had been hit head on by drunken driver Rebecca Benson, 22, who went down I-65 the wrong way. Benson was so hammered, she thought she was riding in a taxi. The crash left both cars mangled, shattered glass carpeting the interstate.
Can you even imagine how horrible that would be? Stuck in traffic and knowing the wreck ahead had killed your sister? Leonard doesn't remember getting off the interstate or turning around to go to her parents' home. She does remember the family falling into each other's arms.
"We were in shock for weeks," Leonard said. "You just think it was a big joke and at any moment she's going to walk through that door."
'People are talking'
It was no joke. A total of 1,013 people died on Tennessee's highways last year, a jump of 75 above 2011. State highway officials believe the tally would have been much higher if they hadn't begun posting the fatality number on the electronic message boards above Tennessee interstates to try and deter bad driving.
"I heard about the signs every single place I went last year," said John Schroer, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation. "In all cases, awareness is the main thing. It may be morbid, some people don't want to see the numbers, but just the fact that people are talking about it makes a difference."
He said "you can't prove" the signs work to make drivers slow down, buckle up and put down their smartphones. But before they began posting the numbers, Tennessee's road fatalities in the first three months of last year had bumped up 64 over 2011. The trend leveled off for the rest of the year after the state starting posting the death rates. That's proof enough for him.
Leonard noticed the signs immediately. And she's become one of their most outspoken advocates.
"It was two or three months after Steffanie was killed when I first saw them," Leonard said. "The number was in the 200's. I thought, 'Those are real people, real families whose lives have been devastated. It makes you think twice."
The signs were quite controversial. Still are. That's good, Schroer said. If you're talking about them, he believes, you're thinking about driving safer.
The record number of deaths in recent years was set in 2004, when there were 1,339.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol responded to the growing fatality numbers by cracking down on drivers who were not wearing their seat belts and on speeding. And, TDOT, which is funded by gas taxes, set aside more money to fix safety hazards when trends were spotted.
Some of those remedies include cable barriers on interstate medians, wider shoulders, reflectors, signs and rumble strips that make noise when your car drifts out of the right lane. Sixty percent of fatal crashes are caused by people leaving a lane.
The 2012 numbers do not indicate any particular trend, Schroer said. No area of the state is worse than others, and no interstate stands out as the most dangerous.
But there are behavioral trends. Of the 1,013 deaths, 415, or 41 percent, were not wearing a seat belt.
"It's stupid not to buckle up," he said. And, he said, 30 percent of fatal wrecks were attributed to drinking and driving. TDOT officials also say accidents are caused by distracted drivers who are texting or using cellphones. Motorcycle deaths were up by 17 in 2012.
States follow suit
The state's 151 electronic highway signs went up about a decade ago, paid for by federal highway grants in every state. The intent was to use them when children were missing and to let drivers know about drive times and lane blockages.
The idea to use them to flash fatality numbers came during a brainstorming session to address the state's spiking fatality rate last spring.
"No one really knows why the trend was that way," Schroer said. "It would have been over 1,200 deaths if that had continued. The signs created more buzz than we ever expected. If we can stop one fatality in one family, it's worth it. I'd like to think they were successful because we stopped the trend."
Using the signs costs the state no money, he said. But they are aware that the signs may be losing their effectiveness as drivers got over-saturated.
This year, they will post the fatality numbers only on Fridays, in hopes that it will shock drivers when they see how much they can grow in just one week.
Since Tennessee started using the signs, other states have followed suit, including Georgia, Vermont, New Hampshire, Illinois, Rhode Island, Texas and Missouri. Nevada officials saw a presentation TDOT did about the signs in October and will begin displaying fatality numbers in two months.
"We started a trend," Schroer said.
They've gotten about 50 emails about the signs, many of them from drivers who hate how gruesome they are. Schroer offers no apologies: "Death is that. There's no way to keep it from being that. These represent families. That's three a day."
TDOT officials proudly show off an email they got from Franklin's Dan Tito: "Me and my friend were traveling from Nashville to Center Hill Lake and passed several of your message board signs indicating how many people have died on Tennessee roads. I have to tell you that none of us ever wore seat belts until we saw those signs."
But reviews of the signs are mixed in social media. A question posed on Facebook - "Are these a gruesome distraction or a good reminder to slow down and buckle up?" - got more than 90 responses, many highly emotional. A sampling:
"I find the signs distracting," wrote Kathleen Egerton Harkey. "I wish they only used them for emergencies like Amber alerts or accidents ahead."
Laura G. Spence disagreed: "It made me more cautious."
Said Cheryl Duncan: "I find it less distracting than 'Eat Mor Chickin' or other advertisements."
Phil Michal Thomas said the signs "make you ponder if the hurry is actually worth the speeding."
But Nathan Moore said the signs are "quite macabre, no different than if Chicago had a big lit up sign on the Sears Tower tallying homicide numbers for all to see."
The signs changed Kathy J. Tate's driving: "I quit texting and driving the day I looked up and saw that number. I realized I was one text and/or distraction away from my name in lights."
To Ed Gregory, "They were never numbers. The first time I noticed the numbers changing, I wondered about the lives - the pain and anguish."
'A huge hole'
Leonard is all for the signs. Since her sister was killed, her whole family, including baby sister Rebekah, her mother and father, have been working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Her sister's killer, Benson, is serving two years in prison for vehicular homicide and reckless endangerment. Eight years of probation, including community service, will follow.
"The signs are a hot topic," she said. "I hope they continue the signs. Obviously, it has an impact because people wouldn't be talking about it if it didn't. I don't want anybody else to experience this pain.
"There is a huge hole. We felt it so much this holiday season. For every present we bought, there was a present we weren't buying."
Leonard keeps a table in her living room with a collection of her sister's favorite things. The Pepsi hat she wore to work - she was making her rounds to convenience stores as a PepsiCo representative when she was killed. A doll from "Toy Story." Her childhood Lite-Brite toy. Photos. Part of her giraffe collection.
"From the day she was born, I was just head over heels in love with her," Leonard said, recalling her sister as the only one brave enough to join the high school wrestling team. "She was just joy. She knew no boundaries."
Leonard recalls the family, including her 11-year-old daughter, having regular cookouts, vacations, monthly get-togethers.
She hopes that drivers will think about her sister when they hear their phone pinging, or consider having that third glass of wine at a party, or don't want to fool with their seat belt.
"I'm so glad my daughter had those special times with her," Leonard said. "But there should be more."