Traffic fatality count will be on highway message boards in Ohio

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A digital message board in Columbus last week showed the traffic-fatality messaging that will go statewide beginning Wednesday. The Ohio State Patrol and Ohio Department of Transportation hope putting the stark messages in front of motorists will prompt them to change risky driving behavior.

(Ohio Department of Transportation)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- More than 480 people have become traffic fatalities in Ohio this year, and if you drive the state's highways, you'll be reminded of that.

The Ohio State Patrol and the Ohio Department of Transportation unroll a safety initiative this week that puts the death toll on digital message boards visible above highways across the state.

An Ohio State Patrol map shows fatal crashes in Ohio so far in 2015.

An Ohio State Patrol map shows fatal crashes in Ohio so far in 2015.

The boards will rotate between the year-to-date number of traffic deaths for 2015 and traffic safety messaging, such as Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over, as well as missing-person alerts.

State officials say putting fatality counts in front of drivers may make them think more about safety when they're behind the wheel. Ohio follows the lead of other states with traffic death messaging, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.

"We're hoping that what it does is prompt people to think and maybe change their driving behaviors," ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning said. "If you're driving down the interstate talking on your cell phone... maybe it will get you to put your phone down."

(National Safety Council researchers said last month that cell phone-related crashes increased for the third consecutive year and represented 27 percent of all crashes in 2013.)

ODOT has 130 permanently installed message boards that will carry the fatality information. The digital signs also will continue to have warnings about traffic slowdowns and accidents, Amber Alerts that broadcast child abduction information, and Silver Alerts with information about missing people, especially senior citizens with Alzheimer's disease and other impairments.

Portable message boards typically used ahead of construction zones will be redeployed, when they're available, in rural areas that don't have digital signs.

As of last week, Ohio had 454 confirmed traffic fatalities and another 34 "provisional" fatalities, in which local police haven't yet officially verified the deaths as traffic-related. Provisionals almost always end up in the confirmed fatalities column. At the same time last year, there were 411 traffic deaths statewide.

ODOT is pulling apart the statistics to look for clues about why the numbers are up.

A few patterns have emerged. Since January 1, there's been an 82 percent jump in fatalities involving semi-trailer trucks and other commercial vehicles. The fault was with the truck driver in 37 percent of those accidents. There's also been a 27 percent increase in fatalities involving people 65 and older.

"We have our traffic safety folks analyzing all this data," Bruning said.

Patrol and ODOT officials plan to announce the messaging system Wednesday morning in Columbus at the Ohio Department of Transportation Traffic Management Center.