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'Driver behavior has changed significantly' | Traffic fatalities in North Carolina stabilizing compared to 2021

2021 was the deadliest year on the roads since 2007. State officials have several concerns, including speeding and distracted driving.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On Tuesday morning part of Interstate 485 outer loop in Matthews was closed due to a crash that left one person dead

More than 1,700 people were killed in car crashes in 2021. The 5% increase from 2020 made 2021 the deadliest on North Carolina streets in two decades. Officials say so far this year, the trend seems to be leveling out.

“The roads have not changed significantly since 2020. Driver behavior has changed significantly,” Mark Ezzell, the director of the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program, said.

That includes distractions behind the wheel. State data shows over the last five years, there has been a 15% increase in distracted driving-related accidents and fatalities. So far this year 117 people have died in distracted driving accidents, one more than this time last year.

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A bill, proposing a law that would make it illegal to use a handheld device while driving, was also tabled last year.

“When you have a couple of hundred people who die each year in the state of North Carolina from distracted driving - plus the folks who are injured and all of the property damage that’s done - I think it’s a small step to ask folks don’t have your phone in your hand,” North Carolina Senator Jim Burgin, who represents District 12, told WCNC Charlotte.

Burgin plans to reintroduce the bill in January. He said every surrounding state except South Carolina has a hands-free law in place.

“It will save lives, it will save injury, it will save a lot of grief for folks,” Burgin said.

Meanwhile, the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program is investing millions of dollars in grant money to support transportation safety initiatives. Some of it focused on educating younger drivers and stressing the importance of focusing solely on the road.

“We also have worked closely with the insurance agents across the state who are vastly concerned about this issue to come up with new projects that can address it from that angle as well,” Ezzell said.

Another area where distracted driving and other dangerous behaviors are concerning are in work zones. The number of people killed in work zones so far this year is already higher than all of last year.

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“Federal money has allowed us to do some expansion in counties that are highly populated like Mecklenburg,” Ezzell said. “That’s going to mean more work zones and that’s going to mean people are going to need to pay attention.”

Work zones are especially dangerous for both drivers and construction crews. So far this year, there have been 32 fatalities in work zones. This time last year there had been 19, and there were 29 in all of 2021.

RELATED: Construction on I-485 sees delays

“Driving means that you’re basically piloting a two-to-three thousand pound guided missile down the highway and doing that in something as narrow as a work zone can be especially dangerous for you, the driver in front or behind you and those people who are working in the work zones,” Ezzell said.

NCDOT officials say they’re concerned about speed and distracted driving in these areas and typically see rear-end crashes the most in work zones.

 “Drivers need to slow down. They need to pay attention. They need to drive with considerable care,” Ezzell said. “Maybe even more than they’d take in a non-work zone area.”

For the latest breaking news, weather and traffic alerts, download the WCNC Charlotte mobile app.

The governor’s highway safety program will also be putting more resources into educating people about the Move Over Law. That law requires drivers to move over when they see emergency vehicles with flashing lights. That’s not just police, fire, or ambulances, it also includes tow trucks. Officials say law enforcement will be enforcing the law and penalties are stiff.

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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