Four fatal crashes in the last month have brought the total number of traffic deaths in Columbia this year to 17 — 10 more than last year and an all-time high.
Another 10 people have died on Boone County’s state highways so far this year — one more than in 2002, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
“There has been a tremendous amount of fatals in Boone County this year, and I have no idea why,” said Lyn Woolford, a traffic officer for Columbia’s eastern district. “It’s a record year — we’ve never had this many in Columbia.”
Before this year, the most traffic deaths in Columbia were 12 in 2001 and 1981, according to police.
About 1,200 people die on Missouri’s highways each year.
Speeding and drunken driving were the most common contributing factors in this year’s accidents, Woolford said. Traffic growth — linked to Columbia’s rapid residential development — may also be a factor, he said.
“It seems like we’re getting more accidents, when in fact we’re double the size we were back in ’71,” said Columbia Police Sgt. Timothy Moriarity.
Columbia police started tracking traffic deaths in 1971. Since then, 230 people have died on Columbia streets and highways. Between 1970 and 2000, the city’s population — including college students — grew by 67 percent, from 80,935 residents to 135,454, according to Census data.
Moriarity said the department’s traffic-enforcement unit has tried to keep pace with Columbia’s residential growth, but budgetary restrictions have limited the current unit to six members: one traffic sergeant, two motorcycle officers and three crash investigators.
Increasingly, police are handling the residential boom by working with road engineers in new subdivisions to develop traffic-calming devices — such as “speed humps” and “roundabouts” — to slow down traffic, Woolford said.
“They really work and force people to drive slower,” Woolford said.
The three intersections in Columbia with the highest number of accidents are the junction of Interstate 70 and Stadium Boulevard, the U.S. 63 connector at I-70 and where Bernadette Drive meets Stadium Boulevard, Moriarity said.
The steady flow of cars and trucks on I-70 is also a factor in this year’s record death toll, Moriarity said, as more and more local drivers are using the interstate to travel within Columbia.
“Mix that in with all the other people traveling through Columbia, it sometimes can be hazardous because of all the weaving,” he said. “There are so many exits along I-70 in Columbia that it creates a problem in Columbia.”
Capt. Chris Ricks of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said this is a particularly dangerous time of year on Columbia’s stretch of I-70. Students leaving Columbia’s college campuses for the holidays are more likely to exceed the 70-mph speed limit, Ricks said.
“You have a lot of university students — people who are 18, 19, 20 and 21 years old, who think they’re invincible,” Ricks said. “They’re at that thrill-seeking age when they just don’t think it’s going to happen to them.”
Drivers and passengers failed to wear seatbelts in 12 fatal accidents in Columbia this year. That’s in line with figures from the Missouri State Highway Patrol that showed that, in 2002, nearly eight of 10 people who died on state roads weren’t wearing seatbelts.
Last month, Columbia police participated in a statewide program, called “Click It or Ticket,” aimed at boosting seat belt usage among Missouri drivers. Between Nov. 19 and Nov. 30, Columbia police issued 88 seatbelt tickets and 63 speeding tickets.
Police expect more accidents in the weeks ahead. The Missouri State Highway Patrol predicts that 20 to 25 people will die on the state’s roads between Christmas and New Year’s Day. More people will be traveling because of the holidays, and there is a higher chance motorists will encounter both bad weather and impaired drivers.
“We’ll see an increase in crashes when we get into the holiday period,” Ricks said. “Fatalities will go up a little bit. That time period is dangerous because people are out drinking and celebrating.”
In the latest fatal crash Dec. 13, two Nebraska truckers were killed when a tractor-trailer heading west on I-70 crossed the median and collided head-on with another 18-wheeler just west of the Stadium Boulevard Exit. Police have not yet determined what caused the collision, Moriarity said.