Missouri traffic deaths on pace to fall below 1,000

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. _ Alarmed by the large number of Missourians dying in traffic accidents, a highway safety coalition set a goal three years ago to reduce Missouri's traffic fatalities to 1,000 annually by the end of 2008.

That seemed like an impossible dream when Missouri's road deaths soared the next year to their highest level ever.

But now as 2007 nears an end, it appears that Missouri will beat that goal by a full year.

As of early Friday, the Missouri State Highway Patrol said 958 people had been killed in traffic accidents this year. That death toll is likely to remain below 1,000, barring an unusually dangerous travel weekend or particularly high number of hospitalized people dying from traffic injuries they already have sustained.

Safer driving certainly played a role in the fatality decline. But the state also has stepped up its efforts to protect drivers from the unsafe actions of themselves and others.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has installed cable barriers in the grass medians of interstates 70 and 44 to cut down on the number of vehicles crossing over into high-speed, head-on collisions — a particularly dangerous kind of crash.

The Transportation Department also has tried to reduce the number of vehicles running off the shoulders of roads by installing rumble strips and using brighter, wider yellow and white stripes.

Highway maintenance crews have cleared out roadside trees in areas with particularly poor visibility and installed more frequent mileage markers enabling emergency crews to respond more precisely to accidents, said Scott Turner, the Transportation Department's highway safety program administrator.

The Highway Patrol has focused its efforts on areas where there historically have been a lot of traffic violations or crashes, said patrol spokesman Lt. John Hotz.

Because motorists tend to slow down when they see a police car, the patrol also had tried to increase its visibility. In-car computers allow troopers to write reports while remaining parked near roads, instead of returning to the office, Hotz said.

The patrol said Friday that it recently placed decals on the sides of 142 previously unmarked patrol cars — another effort to encourage motorists to drive safely by increasing the number of police cruisers they see along the roads.

Many of the safety steps taken by the state were called for in a 2004 Blueprint for Safer Roadways that was developed by a coalition of government agencies, nonprofit groups and representatives from the health care and insurance industries.

In 2005, however, Missouri traffic fatalities peaked at 1,257. They fell last year to 1,096, the largest drop nationally.

If Missouri finishes 2007 with fewer than 1,000 traffic fatalities, its roadway death count will have fallen by more than one-fifth in just two years.

The reduction will have been accomplished without enactment of what the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety identified as the top safety step in 2004: passage of a primary seat belt law.

Under current Missouri law, police can issue tickets to people for not wearing their seat belts only if drivers are pulled over for some other traffic violation. A primary enforcement law would allow police to stop motorists solely for not wearing their seat belts.

Tougher seat belt enforcement laws have consistently been proposed in the Legislature but have failed to pass for a mixture of reasons, including concerns about the potential for racial profiling and an infringement on individual liberties.