The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 24, 2010

Falling fatalities: Highway deaths continue on four-year decrease


By Wally Kennedy

wkennedy@joplinglobe.com

For the fourth year in a row, the number of people killed in Missouri highway crashes has fallen.

The death toll for 2009 was 871, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. That’s almost 100 fewer than the number killed in 2008.

Not since 1950 has Missouri seen so few people killed in highway crashes. In that year, when far fewer people and vehicles were on the road than today, the death toll was 889.

Safer vehicles, improved emergency medical services, safer highways, increased law enforcement and educational efforts promoting the use of seat belts are combining to lower the loss of life on Missouri highways, officials say.

“Lives are being saved because the coalition partners are working together — and it’s an exciting thing for Missouri,” said Leanna Depue, chairwoman of the executive committee of the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, in a prepared statement.

Overall, since 2005, traffic deaths have decreased by 31 percent, because of the combined efforts of highway safety advocates in the coalition.

Revee White, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said in a recent interview that many things have changed since 1950. Missouri’s total population, she said, has increased by more than 51 percent. Missourians are driving five times more miles than they did in 1950, and the number of registered vehicles has quadrupled.

“That’s why this is such a huge accomplishment for Missouri,” said Col. James F. Keathley, the Missouri State Highway Patrol superintendent, in a prepared statement. “When you consider the dramatic differences between now and 1950, it is truly amazing that we can have almost the same number of fatalities as we did back then, but yet have this huge difference in the death rate per 100 million miles traveled.”

In October 2008, the coalition announced a goal of reducing the number of traffic fatalities to 850 or lower by 2012. The last time Missouri had fewer than 850 fatalities was in 1949.

“We came really close in 2009 to reaching our goal of 850 traffic fatalities by 2012,” Depue said. “If we can implement additional life-saving strategies, then we have a better chance to meet this goal.”

One of the top strategies for meeting the goal, she said, is strengthening Missouri’s seat belt law to allow for primary enforcement. A 2009 survey found that 77 percent of Missourians are buckling up. The state remains consistently below the national average of 84 percent.

“A primary seat belt law in Missouri would increase the usage rate, saving 63 lives, 759 serious injuries and $179 million in costs in the first year it goes into effect,” Depue said.

White, with MoDOT, said Missouri has a seat belt law, but it’s a secondary law.

“You can be given a ticket for not wearing a seat belt if you are stopped for another reason,” she said. “You cannot be ticketed for not just wearing your seat belt.”

In the 2009 Missouri legislative session, a primary seat belt law was endorsed by 66 sponsors, but it failed to make it out of the House of Representatives.

“There were too many amendments connected to it in committee, and it never came up for a vote,” White said. “No bill has been filed in this legislative session. We would like to see one, and there has been some interest, but nothing has been filed at this time.”

The decrease in Missouri’s highway death toll was spurred in 2005 by the installation of guard cables in highway medians. Officials estimate that more than 100 lives have been saved since the installation of more than 600 miles of guard cable on Missouri’s interstate highways.

Wendy Brunner-Lewis, spokeswoman for MoDOT’s regional office in Joplin, said the department has no immediate plans to install additional cable guards in Southwest Missouri. That could change if cross-median fatalities increase on a particular stretch of highway, she said.

White said research shows that cross-median fatalities decreased from about 50 per year to 10 per year.

“Car safety has came a long way over the years, too,” White said. “But, that’s been offset by the fact that people are traveling a lot more.”