Traffic deaths down ahead of schedule

Sunday, January 13, 2008 | 5:38 p.m. CST; updated 4:34 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — There were fewer than 1,000 traffic fatalities in Missouri in 2007, Col. James F. Keathley reported Friday, meaning the Missouri Department of Transportation reached its goal one year early.

Keathley, superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, joined several other speakers at a press conference at University Hospital to report that only 974 traffic deaths occurred last year. That’s the lowest number Missouri has seen since 1993.

In 2004, the Missouri Department of Transportation compiled Missouri’s Blueprint for Roadway Safety, a list of strategies intended to improve state roads. Along with the Blueprint, the Transportation Department set a goal to reduce Missouri’s number of yearly traffic fatalities to fewer than than 1,000 by the end of 2008.

Friday’s report meant the department has met its goal a year early. Keathley also said that 2007 was the second year in a row that Missouri traffic fatalities saw a double-digit percent decrease. Last year’s total is down from 1,257 in 2005 and 1,096 in 2006, according to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety Web site.

Speaker Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, attributed the decrease to developments implemented through the Blueprint.

“Installation of guard cables has cut cross-median fatalities in half,” he said. Rahn added that an increase in “rumble strips” on the roads has decreased “run-off-the-road” crashes by one-quarter.

Money for the improvements has come from Amendment 3, Rahn said, but that funding is drying up because most of those funds have already been earmarked for projects.

“Amendment 3 money has all been committed to projects for the next two years,” Rahn said. “After that money runs out, MoDOT is in trouble.”

Passed in 2004, Amendment 3 requires that all state vehicle sales tax, as well as a larger share of existing highway user fees, be given to the Department of Transportation, according to the department’s Web site.

Amendment 3 has been gradually phased in since 2005 but will not take full effect until 2009. Once all funding is in place, Amendment 3 will have added nearly $190 million to the Transportation Department’s budget for transportation system improvements.

In addition to rumble strips and cable barriers, the Blueprint calls for increased and improved law enforcement. Keathley said the goal has been achieved by recruiting a class of troopers twice, instead of once, each year and increasing the number of sobriety checkpoints.

Keathley said there are plans to start a motorcycle program, allowing troopers to get to accidents in urban areas more quickly.

The Highway Patrol has not spent unbudgeted money to accomplish its goals, he said.

After the main announcement, speakers emphasized the importance of wearing seat belts for drivers and wearing helmets for motorcyclists.

“We (in the trauma unit) see the worst of the worst,” said Greg Della Rocca, an orthopedic surgeon with MU Health Care. “Most of what I see results from things that were preventable.”

People who don’t wear seat belts or helmets usually stay in the hospital longer than those who do and are also more likely to die from crash-related injuries, Della Rocca said. Missouri has not yet adopted a primary safety belt law, which would allow police officers to pull over anyone not wearing a seat belt.

Another speaker, Omar Davis, director of the Missouri Department of Revenue, partially credited the decrease in traffic fatalities to changes in driver’s licensing rules. Davis said the Revenue Department has increased the number of driving practice hours necessary to obtain a license from 20 to 40 hours and has changed commercial license laws.

“Now, if big-rig drivers commit a violation in their personal vehicles, their commercial licenses can be restricted,” he said.

Several students from Hickman High School attended the conference to be congratulated for their work with the Arrive Alive campaign.

“Our group has been focusing on people buckling up in their vehicles,” said student Le’chai Ramsey. The group is active in encouraging peers to wear seat belts anytime they are in a vehicle and to be more attentive while driving.

Despite the major improvements put in place by government, Keathley said that, in the end, reducing traffic fatalities is in the hands of the people of Missouri.

“We have to count on the public to drive safely,” he said.

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