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by Mark Cheffey
State MoDOT personnel were in Palmyra last Wednesday in an effort to bring more attention to highway safety in Northeast Missouri.
During a town hall meeting in the Sesquicentennial Building attended by a handful of people, the speakers drew attention to a disturbing trend of increasing numbers of highway fatalities over the past few years.
“Unfortunately, the traffic fatality numbers are going in the wrong direction,” said Nicole Hood, state safety and traffic engineer.
Since 2019, fatal crashes in the state have increased every year from 881 in 2019 to 1,057 in 2022, and there have been 394 so far this year.
And, while the majority of those crashes occur in urban areas due to higher population and traffic congestion, the numbers are also increasing in rural areas and in Northeast Missouri.
Jon Nelson, the assistant state safety and traffic engineer said the number of fatal crashes per capita, put rural areas are right up their with the rest of the rest of the state.
The highway officials speaking at the town hall, said MoDOT works hard to make the state’s roads safer for motorists, but indicated there are other factors contributing to the fatal crash numbers.
Nelson said speed continues to be the No. 1 factor but the other top four contributors are distraction, impairment and seat belts.
“Pretty much since the pandemic, it’s just gone through the roof,” Nelson said of speeding as a cause.
But it is also competing with inattention, which Nelson indicated may have been a major contributor to the increase in fatalities over the years.
He pointed out traffic fatalities hit an all time high in 2005, but then the numbers started going down until the hit the lowest point since 1949 in 2013.
“So, we felt pretty good about ourselves,” Nelson said.
But, they have been increasing ever since, so much so that in 2017, Missouri received an F from the National Safety Council with an overall road safety ranking of 49 out of 51.
Nelson said much of the boost in numbers is possibly due to the increasing number and use of cell phones, which are now cited as a major contributor to driver inattention.
“I think it’s a huge part of it,” Nelson said.
While speed plays into it too, Nelson noted that 75 percent of traffic fatalities occur when a vehicle leaves its lane.
And, while he acknowledged gains have been made over the years in increasing the use of seat belts, there is still room for improvement.
In 1990, seat belt usage was at 65 percent, but has improved to 80.3 percent in 2020-21 and 85 percent in 2022-2023.
“That is the easiest fix,” Nelson said of efforts to close the gap.
Missouri is one of a few states that has not passed a mandatory seat belt law, and that a hands-free law is only now before the governor for signature, but Nelson and the other speakers noted MoDOT is focusing on education as a way to promote traffic safety.
In 2021, the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety instituted a five-year strategic highway safety plan entitled, Show-Me Zero, Driving Missouri Toward Safer Roads, showing a commitment to reduce fatal crashes in the state as much as possible.
To answer those who doubt eliminating fatal crashes altogether is an unreasonable goal, Nelson asked, “What number would be acceptable?”
The plan highlights educational and outreach efforts being made across the state to, for example, improve seat belt usage, work zone awareness and driver education.
Elementary through high school programs now being offered in the state include:
• TRACTION, Teens Taking Action to Prevent Traffic Crashes, a high school traffic safety leadership training program that features a three-day summer conference for high school students;
• BRAKES, Be Reasonable and Keep Everyone Safe, which conducts hands-on advanced driver training events for teens and their parents through both classroom and hands-on experience;
• Smart Riders, a first through fifth grade interactive online program designed to educate elementary students and parents on ways to make roads safer and prevent crashes;
• Booster to Belts, a kindergarten through third-grade and high school program that features a 20-minute interactive way for teens to teach children the importance of buckling up and using booster seats;
• Is It Worth It?, the University of Missouri Health Care’s injury prevention and trauma outreach program for youths 14 to 18 offers 60-90 minute free classroom presentations to high schools;
• ThinkFirst, a program for youths age 14 to 18, to prevent traumatic injuries through education, outreach and policy by educating people;
• First Impact, an evidence -based traffic safety parent program targeted to parents and/or guardians of teen drivers in the pre-permit, permit or intermediate stage of licensure;
• Power of Parents & Power of You(th), a program offered by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to prevent and reduce underage drinking;
• The Arrive Alive Tour, offered to teens age 15-18 by the Unite Corporation to reduce traffic safety problems related to distracted and impaired driving through the use of virtual reality simulators;
Safe and Sober, a program for 12 to 18 year olds, parents and teachers designed to provide information they need to prevent underage drinking; and
TyREDD, Tyler Raising Education for Drowsy Driving, an organization founded in 2011 with a mission to prevent drowsy driving.
Those attending the town hall were given time to ask questions or make comments and were encouraged to fill out a feedback card that is also available online though the Show-Me Zero page.