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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Airbags, seatbelts and tougher laws may be saving lives on Tennessee roads, despite faster speed limits, a University of Tennessee traffic specialist said Wednesday.

 Dr. Steve Richards said the 1,210 traffic deaths tallied in preliminary state reports for 1996 may be a sign that Tennessee roads are getting safer.

 State officials said the results, down from 1,259 deaths in 1995, will not be final until spring, but the total might be the lowest in four years.

 Richards said more vehicles equipped with airbags, automatic seatbelts and better braking systems are reducing traffic fatalities.

 “These are major technology-related safety improvements that have come onto the scene recently,” Richards said. “We are getting to the point where more vehicles, probably the majority, are equipped with these devices. That is a very important factor that has impacted the number of fatalities.”

 The possible decline in traffic deaths came even though the speed limit was raised from 55 mph to 65 mph on portions of interstate outside large towns or cities.

 Richards said Tennessee’s decision to raise its speed limit only 10 miles per hour also may have helped save lives.

 For instance, Georgia raised interstate speeds to 70 and had an increase in fatalities, though other reasons such as faster population growth also may be to blame, Richards said.

 “Tennessee took the wise path in raising the speed limit only on certain roadways and not in a blanket fashion,” Richards said. “I think the reduction in fatalities is evidence that the state took the prudent approach with the new speed limit.”

 Recent, tougher state motor laws, such as a mandatory 48 hours in jail for a first DUI offense and ticketing motorists for driving without seatbelts, are also making Tennessee roads safer, Richards said.

 “Strengthened state DUI and seatbelt laws are legislative efforts where we can find some real payoffs,” Richards said.


 Contact: Dr. Steve Richards (423-974-5255)