RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – 1,794 people died in traffic crashes on North Carolina roads in 2021, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Each bulb on the “Tree of Life” outside Raleigh’s Capitol represents those lives lost.
The tree lighting ceremony for them was held Friday night.
The vigil honored all crash victims from 2021. The 429 red bulbs on the tree represent people killed by an impaired driver and the three blue bulbs represent law enforcement traffic fatalities.
One of those fatalities is Knightdale Police Officer Ryan Hayworth.
Hayworth was hit and killed by a drunk driver along I-540 last October. His father Timothy Hayworth said his son was deeply devoted to helping others and loved working for the police department.
“This was no accident, this was a murder,” Tim Hayworth said. “Ryan was murdered by a man who chose to indulge and overindulge in alcohol and drugs, and then he chose to get behind the wheel and drive. That night part of me died as well.”
Traffic fatalities were up about 8 percent in 2021 compared to 2020, according to numbers from NCDOT.
Those numbers don’t include survivors whose lives are changed forever, such as Brittany Cass, who was hit head-on by a drunk driver in January.
“I have spent the last 11 months fighting to get my life back,” Cass said. “I have had a total of seven surgeries, spent months in the hospital, and have gone through thousands of hours of occupational and physical therapy.”
The Governor’s Highway Safety Program Director Mark Ezzell said 2021 was the deadliest year on North Carolina roads since 1973. Ezzell said it’s hard to pinpoint why deaths are up but believes speeding, an increase in pedestrian deaths and anxiety post-COVID-19 play a role.
“We’re spending roughly 20 million just on the behavioral aspects of traffic safety, funding these law enforcement that you see behind us, funding new outreach efforts and more communication efforts to convince people to drive safely,” Ezzell said. “We are working with traffic engineers to make sure that roads are appropriately designed for the vehicles.”
Numbers from NCDOT show traffic deaths are down 5 percent through Nov. 11 of this year compared to the same timeframe in 2021, 1,501 compared to 1,580.
Jennifer Lichtneger, the Director of N.C. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the time between Thanksgiving and New Years is one of the most dangerous times on the road. She said everyone should have a plan when it comes to getting to and from their celebration, whether it’s assigning a designated driver or calling a rideshare.