By DON O'BRIEN
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
MOUNT STERLING, Ill. -- The Illinois State Police and Illinois Department of Transportation live by the motto "Driving zero fatalities to a reality."
The ultimate goal for the state agencies is to have no one die on state highways and roads.
For the fourth straight year in 2012, there were fewer than 1,000 traffic deaths in the state. There were six counties out of the 102 in the state that didn't have any fatalities and two of those were in the area -- Brown County and Hancock County. Law enforcement officials, emergency services personnel and driver's eduction teachers in both counties were honored Monday by the ISP.
The award came one day after a Carthage man died in a one-vehicle crash in Hancock County.
"Our goal is zero fatalities," said John Webber, interim director of the Illinois Department of Transportations Division of Traffic Safety. "A lot of people would look at that say, ‘That's just impossible. You're never going to get that done.' We have six counties that did that in 2012.
"What we're trying to get across is to put a little perspective on it. ... Ten years ago, it was more like 1,650 people who died, and you back 20 years and it was between 2,000 and 2,500 people were getting killed in Illinois streets and roads. Now we're down under 1,000 and really need to drive the message home that zero fatalities is the only acceptable goal."
According to ISP statistics, there were 893 fatal crashes in the state in 2012, leading to 963 deaths. That represented 45 fewer deaths than in 2011. Traffic crash fatalities are at their lowest point since the early 1920s. Illinois saw at least 2,000 deaths per year from 1963 through 1979. Illinois' worst-ever year for traffic fatalities came in 1941, when 2,600 people died.
Since the state police started keeping statistics in 1920, the lowest number of deaths came in 1920 with 728. In recent times, the low was 911 deaths in 2009.
Eric Grady, a driver's education teacher at Brown County High School, was one of several people to be commended by the state police for making zero fatalities a reality in his county.
"It's a great honor for the school, kids, parents and everyone who has a hand in promoting their kids' safety and teaching them to be safe on the roadways," said Grady, who has taught driver's education for five years.
Increased education, officials said, is one of the reasons for the lower number of fatalities.
"There is a lot more driving than when I was in school," Grady said. "That's one of the big benefactors to this. Kids are getting a lot more practice. Legally, they have to have a lot more practice. They are a lot more ready than they were 10 or 20 years ago."
Illinois State Police Lt. Glen Schwartz pointed to several factors for safer roads.
"There has been heavy enforcement on our side," he said. "Education is huge. We're getting into driver's ed and talking to the young kids. We're working closely with IDOT and highway maintainers like county highway departments. They're keeping the roads safe. And EMS is responding to accidents that do occur. Without their prompt attention and medical services, we'd have a lot more fatal accidents."
Schwartz said that there is still work to be done.
"If there is one message we have to get out there is driving and texting," he said. "Distracted driving is a problem and we have to keep battling that."
The other counties that didn't have any fatalities in 2012 were Edgar, Greene, Hamilton and Putnam.