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Missouri reaches a record high of work zone fatalities because of distracted drivers

Missouri has diverted anywhere from 1.5-3% of its construction money from safety programs, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. Around $17 million is spent on highway infrastructure like guard cables, rumble strips and friction treatments.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Missouri Department of Transportation is trying to curb distracted driving in the state as fatalities in work zone crashes reached a record high in 2023.

Last year, 35 people died in work zone crashes in Missouri, a record high. That same year, MoDOT work zone vehicles with mounted attenuators were hit 63 times.

Missouri and national officials want to put an end to distracted driving.

“Distracted driving has been on the rise in Missouri like in many other states, and one of the main methods that we’re using to try and combat that is through the Buckle Up Phone Down campaign,” said Jon Nelson, the assistant to the State Highway Safety and Traffic Engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, on the seven-year-old initiative.

Last year, 35 people died in work zone crashes in Missouri. It was a record high for such fatalities in the state, according to MoDOT. That same year, MoDOT work zone vehicles with mounted attenuators were hit 63 times. That’s up from the previous year.

“Whenever you’re approaching that work zone and you see that big yellow truck with the flashing lights and the arrow telling you to move over, that’s not just a truck,” Nelson said. “That’s a person in that truck. And that’s a person who has put their lives on the line in that truck to protect the other workers in the work zone up ahead.”

In the U.S., roughly 289,310 people were injured while 3,308 others were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes that involved distracted drivers in 2022. That’s according to newly released data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Almost 20% of those killed in distracted driving-related crashes were people outside of the vehicle – pedestrians, cyclists and others on the road,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator Sophie Shulman during a press conference earlier this month. “Sadly, distracted driving crashes and fatalities are likely underreported.”

The preliminary data also found that traffic deaths in the U.S. exceeded 40,000 people in 2023. It’s a slight decline from 2022 but remains higher than pre-pandemic levels. In Missouri, traffic deaths dropped by roughly 6%. Illinois decreased by 1%.

Earlier this month, the NHTSA launched its Put It Away or Pay Campaign during distracted driving awareness month to address the problem.

“They’re using apps and social media and even watching and recording videos,” Shulman said. “All of these behaviors are dangerous and deadly. We want everyone to know, put the phone away or pay. Pay can mean a ticket or points on your license. It can also mean paying the ultimate price, a deadly crash that takes your life or someone else on the road.”

Distracted driving is more than just using a cellphone. It can be as simple as being lost in your own thoughts or other distractions in the car, said Nelson.

“It can be other passengers in your vehicle that are being too loud or carrying on conversations that can detract from the driver's attention,” Nelson said. “It can be blaring music too loud and just totally lost in the moment not paying attention to what’s going on. It could be eating or drinking or putting on makeup.”

Last August, Gov. Mike Parson signed a measure creating the Siddens Bening Hands-Free Law. It prohibits the use of all handheld electronic communication devices while driving. The law was put into place following a nine-year period between 2012 and 2021, when roughly 800 people died and nearly 200,000 were involved in distracted driving crashes. Nelson said data only shows a portion of the reality.

“We know that it is more than that,” Nelson said. “But there is no blood test for distracted driving like there is for impaired driving. There’s no field sobriety test. So it is very difficult short of an admission or an eyewitness to capture that on a crash report.”

According to 2020 data from the Illinois Department of Transportation, 9,432 crashes involved distracted drivers.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson joined the KRCU team in November 2015 as a feature reporter. She was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri where she grew up watching a lot documentaries on PBS, which inspired her to tell stories. In May 2015, she graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism degree in Convergence Journalism. Marissanne comes to KRCU from KBIA, where she worked as a reporter, producer and supervising editor while covering stories on arts and culture, education and diversity.
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