Hannibal Courier-Post: Marion County bucks trend with decrease in deaths, injuries for 2015

By Trevor McDonald
Hannibal Courier-Post reporter

Posted Jan. 9, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Hannibal

Across the state, 2015 marked the highest number of highway fatalities since 2009, while Marion County experienced a decrease in fatalities and injuries. Despite the surge in deaths, factors that caused crashes remained unchanged.

Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers seek to eliminate highway fatalities, Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop B Sergeant Brent Bernhardt said. In the Troop B area, expanded four-lane highways and new enforcement programs for troopers combined to help the Patrol boost safety. But a myriad of factors continue to pull motorists’ concentration away from the task of driving, and Missouri lags behind a vast majority of states regarding laws restricting handheld electronic use and texting while driving. The situation in northeast Missouri diverged from the statewide trend of increases in injuries and fatalities on Missouri’s highways.

Rates for Northeast Missouri

In Marion County, 146 reported crashes resulted in 200 injuries and two fatalities in 2015, compared to 193 crashes resulting in 261 injuries and four fatalities in 2014 and 160 crashes resulting in 217 injuries and five fatalities in 2009. The situation was a bit different for Ralls County, where 2015 reports indicated 61 crashes resulting in 91 injuries and three fatalities in 2015, compared to 67 crashes resulting in 107 injuries and two fatalities in 2014 and 63 crashes resulting in 87 injuries and two fatalities in 2009.

A complex problem

In 2015, there were 857 fatalities on Missouri highways. Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop B Sergeant Brent Bernhardt said that for the past couple years, the amount of fatalities involving unbelted occupants remained constant at 63 percent. He said he has told people for years to take the extra three seconds to buckle up and make sure everyone else in the vehicle is restrained, because it could save their lives.

Five fatalities were reported for the past New Year’s Day counting period, representing a drop from the previous year’s total of 11 fatalities. Weather patterns and what day the holiday falls on can affect the counting period’s duration and totals, Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt stressed that every crash is preventable, and there are three main causal factors: inattention — including eating, having a conversation or using a cell phone while driving; speeding — which includes driving too fast for conditions, like weather or loose gravel; and drivers under the influence of alcohol or a drug — which accounts for more than 30 percent of crashes.

Bernhardt said he receives crash statistics by email daily. For the first week of 2016, the Patrol reported a six percent decrease in fatalities. 2015 offered good weather and gas prices continued to decline — two factors that bring more motorists to Missouri roadways, Bernhardt said.

Each day, law enforcement officials vigorously enforce every traffic law as they work to eliminate deaths on Missouri’s roadways.

“One would be too many,” Bernhardt said. “We strive each and very year to have zero fatalities.”

Missouri Revised Statute 304.820.1 prohibits drivers 21 years of age and younger from sending or reading an electronic message while driving — including text messages and emails. Commercial drivers are also prohibited from texting or using handheld devices such as cell phones while driving. But the law doesn’t stop other motorists — including those who are 21 years of age and younger — from making calls with a handheld device. And texting while driving remains legal for non-commercial motorists who are over the age of 21. Missouri is among four states that do not ban all drivers from texting while driving. Handheld device use while driving is banned for all drivers in 14 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to a chart compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Bernhardt said many activities could distract a driver, but he noted that most people have a cell phone — many of which run applications including games, email programs and social media messaging — along with call and text capability.

“That is truly a big distraction,” Bernhardt said.

Some Missouri communities have banned texting while driving for all drivers, including Lake St. Louis and Kirkwood. But three Missouri lawmakers have pre-filed bills for the 2016 that would expand the ban for texting while driving. In past sessions, similar bills failed to make it through the entire House or Senate.

Missouri legislative proposals

Sen. Jill Schupp (D-Creve Coeur) sponsored Senate Bill 821, which would ban all drivers from sending or receiving electronic messages while driving, unless he or she used hands-free voice recognition to send or read the message. Two similar bills were also pre-filed in the Missouri House of Representatives.

Rep. Nate Walker (R-Kirksville) sponsored House Bill 1423, which would also ban all drivers from sending or receiving electronic messages unless hands-free technology was used. Rep. Cloria Brown (R-St. Louis) sponsored House Bill 1544, which would ban phone calls and electronic messages while driving, except through hands-free technology.

Senate Bill 821 went before the Senate General Assembly for a first reading Wednesday, Jan. 6. House Bills 1423 and 1544 were each read a second time Thursday, Jan. 7, but they are not currently scheduled for a House of Representatives calendar.

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com

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