ELLABELLE, Ga. (AP) — Georgia will spend $10 million to add officers to the state law-enforcement division focused on watching and inspecting commercial trucks, Gov. Deal announced Thursday along a stretch of interstate where tractor-trailers recently caused a pair of crashes that killed 10 people.
Within the next year, the state Department of Public Safety will hire 60 officers to its commercial-truck enforcement division. They will be spread among regions of the state where crashes involving big trucks are most common, such as the Interstate 16 corridor leading to the Port of Savannah.
The Georgia State Patrol says two recent crashes on I-16 west of Savannah were caused by tractor-trailers that slammed into stop-and-go traffic. The first chain-reaction collision April 22 killed five nursing students from Georgia Southern University. The second crash May 19 killed five more people at the junction where I-16 meets busy Interstate 95.
"These tragedies brought to the forefront our need to strengthen our safety measures as we prepare for a significant increase in commercial truck traffic in the years to come," Deal told reporters at a news conference along I-16 near the site of the first crash in Bryan County.
Georgia officials say commercial trucks were involved in 16,518 wrecks statewide last year and 157 people died.
Lt. Col. Russell D. Powell, deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said wrecks involving big trucks are up about 4 percent since 2012 and officials worry they will keep increasing as an improving economy and lower gas prices put more cars and big trucks alike on Georgia roads.
The new officers will join 234 commercial-truck enforcement officers already on the job in Georgia. They work much like troopers employed by the State Patrol, but focus on tractor-trailers and other big trucks. Powell said their duties include pulling over drivers for speeding and other traffic violations as well as inspecting trucks both on roadsides and at designated weigh stations.
More than half the 60 new officers will be stationed along the I-16 and I-95 corridors in southeast Georgia, Deal said. Another 20 will be deployed in metro Atlanta. The rest will be used along Interstate 85 south of Atlanta.
Jimmy DeLoach, a former Garden City mayor and Chatham County commissioner, approached Deal about beefing up highway enforcement after his granddaughter, 21-year-old Abbie DeLoach, was among the nursing students killed on I-16 in April.
"Sure it will help, because of the speed," DeLoach said, adding that he saw several tractor-trailers going too fast on his way to the governor's news conference. "One of those big trucks passed me like I was stopped."
Edward Crowell, president of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association, said his group for years has advocated more officers focused on commercial trucks.
"It's going to be good and make life safer for everyone," Crowell said.