By Alex Lippa
---- — Halfway through 2013, New Hampshire has already seen a 20 percent increase in traffic fatalities over the same time last year, up to 48 from 40.
Many fatalities occur during the summer, so officials are concerned about what lies ahead.
“It’s troubling,” said Howard Hedegard, a highway traffic specialist with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “Very few of these fatalities have to happen.”
Hedegard is part of Driving Toward Zero, a coalition of public and private organizations who teamed up to reduce the state’s fatality rate.
One of the ways they are looking to drive the number down is with a memory, an online site at nhdtz.com with stories and videos from people whose lives have been altered by fatal accidents.
“It’s such a powerful topic,” said Kimberley Haas of Derry Community Television, a member of the coalition. “If we were to walk up to them, they wouldn’t want to share these stories. Allowing them to do it on their own makes a huge difference.”
Haas was involved in producing one of the first videos. It tells the story of 17-year-old Chelsea Fuller of Brentwood, who died in a car crash in 2010. The story is told through her parents’ point of view.
The coalition is coordinated by Wedu, a marketing firm in Manchester. Wedu takes all ideas from members of the coalition and publicizes them through the website and social media accounts.
“We take direction from them,” said Lisa Cramb, public relations manager. “Much of the information we spread comes from the New Hampshire strategic safety highway safety plan, which was developed by many members of our coalition.”
Hedegard said the main goal of the program is to educate people that nearly all fatalities are preventable.
“Very few fatalities are true accidents due to mechanical failures to the car,” he said. “Those are the ones that aren’t truly avoidable.”
New Hampshire State Police Lt. Matt Shapiro said 75 percent of fatal crashes are a result of drunken driving, speed or distracted driving. As part of the coalition, he put up messages on highway electronic message boards listing the number of fatalities last year.
“People were just astonished when we did that,” he said. “They were stunned that number was for one year alone.”
Shapiro said it’s hard to tell what the impact has been of the group since its inception in 2012, but he already knows there’s been an improvement over where the state stood in the mid 2000s.
“We were at 150, 160 (fatalities) in 2005,” Shapiro said. “To be able to bring that number down so much is significant.”
The state had 99 fatalities last year.
But Hedegard said the dangerous months are still ahead.
“July and August are traditionally bad,” he said. “In 80-degree weather, there are more cars on the road and motorcycles factor in as well.”