Herald-Whig View

We all can do our part to improve highway safety

Posted: Feb. 4, 2019 9:30 am

THERE are some lessons to be learned from four counties in Northeast Missouri where no highway fatalities occurred last year.

Knox, Lewis, Schuyler and Shelby counties had no highway deaths in 2018. Knox and Schuyler also had no deaths in 2017.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is recognizing those safety records this month. At the same time, MoDOT wants to use the traffic safety celebrations as a teaching moment, letting drivers know there are things they can do to improve their own safety.

MoDOT's Roadway Safety graphic can be comprehended with a quick glance. "Buckle Up" with an arrow pointing up -- "Phone Down" within a downward arrow, telling how drivers can improve their own chance of staying safe.

"Cellphone-related crashes are up 35 percent since 2014," said Jon Nelson, from the Missouri Department of Transportation's state highway safety office. "It's one of the fastest growing causes of fatal crashes in Missouri, and like most other contributing factors, it's completely preventable."

Seat belt usage also is a potent safety measure.

MoDOT recently reported that 87 percent of Missouri drivers wear seat belts. Yet 60 percent of traffic fatalities involve the 1 in 7 people not wearing seat belts.

Highway configurations also affect traffic safety.

Lewis and Clark counties saw 36 highway deaths along U.S. 61 between 1980 and August 2001. At that time the highway was a narrow, two-lane stretch of pavement that carried a rising number of trucks. At that time there were no plans to upgrade U.S. 61 to four lanes before 2020.

Things started to change in August 2001 after two Canton teens, Darrin Edward Cale and Adams D. Martin, died on the rain-slickened highway.

The Students of Missouri Assisting Rural and Urban Transportation, known as SMART, had formed a year earlier after the death of Canton senior Kristin Nicole Hendrickson.

SMART took an impassioned plea to the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission on the very day that Cale and Martin died. Within a few years, after several SMART group meetings with lawmakers and transportation officials, the state found the funds to complete the four-lane highway.

Jeff McReynolds, a former Canton fire chief and one of the SMART group's sponsors, said, "Almost immediately after the completion of the four lane, our number of rescue calls and accident calls dropped dramatically."

In Shelby County, building four lanes of U.S. 36 was accomplished when voters in four counties agreed to impose a half-cent sales tax for no more than 15 years to pay the local share to upgrade the two-lane section of highway between Hannibal and Macon. That highway, too, was not expected to win construction funds for decades until the local counties chipped in to improve safety and boost local economies.

Crashes can be prevented, reduced or made less harmful.

Drivers and passengers who buckle up immediately improve their chances of surviving a crash or reducing any injuries. Avoiding distractions -- with cellphone use considered among the most dangerous -- is a pledge every driver should take.

Communities and individuals who make their concerns known also have the power to win highway improvements that save lives.

Nobody can remove all of the risks on highways, but common-sense efforts by individuals and persistent efforts on behalf of better roads are the shortest path to safer travel.