MISSOURI is winning the war against serious highway crashes and saving lives in the process.
Missouri reported 1,257 crash fatalities in 2005. The Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety engineered a paradigm shift that same year. The Missouri Department of Transportation began adding safety features on highways to reduce injuries and deaths, and safety groups redoubled their safe driving awareness campaigns. Law enforcement agencies boosted their efforts.
The number of fatalities has fallen every year since that team effort began. Highway deaths fell to 786 in 2011.
Leanna DePue, chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, prefers to say that "2,009 lives have been saved" by reducing the death toll of calendar 2005 in succeeding years.
The coalition recently unveiled a new document, fittingly named Missouri's Blueprint to Save More Lives.
The top strategy, not surprisingly, is to increase safety belt use. No other action has so much potential to save lives and prevent serious injuries.
During a conference last week in Hannibal, Mo., three speakers told how seat belt use -- or the failure to use them -- affects lives.
Crystal Lain of Hannibal told of "a life lost" when her sister was ejected from a car in which other occupants survived. Kayle Denny of Jefferson City told of "lives changed" in a crash that put her in a wheelchair and left one of her friends dead. Steve Dickson of Hannibal told about "lives saved" when he and a passenger wore seat belts and survived a head-on crash with little more than bruises.
Statistics support the speakers' experiences. According to a 2011 national survey, 66 percent of Missouri teens wore seat belts. Yet 80 percent of the state's teen fatalities were from the 34 percent of teens not wearing safety belts.
Missouri Department of Transportation officials will continue to make highway improvements that help reduce serious crashes. More cable guards will be installed in medians to prevent cross-over crashes. Signs will help alert motorists on curves. Rumble stripes and strips will warn when vehicles are approaching danger. Shoulders will be improved to avoid drop-offs.
Those changes to the highway system will help, but similar improvements have already been made in the state's most dangerous areas.
Drivers and passengers can do more to improve their own safety than anything MoDOT and other coalition partners can do.
A recent survey found that seat belt use in Missouri was 79 percent. That lags behind the national seat belt usage rate of 86 percent.
"Highway safety starts with individuals," DePue said in Hannibal.
It only takes a few seconds to buckle a seat belt and potentially save a life.
Text messages can wait, along with any other distractions.
Missouri's Coalition for Roadway Safety has set a goal of reducing fatal highway crashes to 700 or fewer people by 2016.
DePue said the ultimate goal is to see zero highway deaths. To those who tell her that is unreasonable, DePue asks, "What level of highway deaths would be acceptable in your family?"