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Missouri Traffic Fatalities Soared In 2020 — Even With Driving Down

Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Vehicles zip along the eastbound lanes of Interstate 64 in St. Louis on a sunny afternoon this month.

A total of 987 people lost their lives on Missouri roadways last year — a 12% increase from 2019, which saw 881 fatalities. Speed was a contributing factor in almost 40% of those deaths, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s state highway and safety traffic engineer said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air.

“[And] in the St. Louis district, it was a contributing factor in 48% of the fatalities,” Nicole Hood explained in conversation with host Sarah Fenske. “That’s up 25% compared to years prior.”

Show-Me Zero Full Color-01.jpg
The Missouri Department of Transportation’s strategic safety plan, “Show-Me Zero,” reminds people to buckle their seatbelts, put their phones down, slow down and drive sober.

Initially, Hood and her colleagues expected that with fewer motorists on the roadways in 2020, there would be decreased fatalities. The results proved just the opposite.

“With up to 50% less traffic for much of the year, the folks who were out there continuing to drive, they just seemed like they were more likely to engage in risky behaviors,” the engineer said. “So we had people that were taking more chances [and being] very aggressive.”

Yet as more drivers return to the state’s roadways and the pandemic subsides, 2021 numbers are looking even worse.

“It just made me sick to my stomach to look at [the latest fatality report],” Hood said, “because as of June 13, our fatalities have increased by 11% compared to this time last year. … We’re just not moving in that right direction.”

Unlike coronavirus infection rates in Missouri, the high speeds and reckless driving habits have not slowed. Hood said highway patrol officers have told her of drivers going between 120 and 140 miles per hour on a stretch of Interstate 270 in the St. Louis region. And just this past weekend, nine people lost their lives on the state’s roads.

Even As Vehicles Get Smarter, More People Are Dying On Missouri Roads
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with Nicole Hood, MoDOT's state highway and safety traffic engineer.

“We generally have around three fatalities a day … so not where we want to be, for sure,” she added.

Among the 2020 deaths, 128 involved pedestrians, with about a dozen of them struck on roadways after exiting their own vehicles in the wake of incidents.

“Sometimes you’re driving down the road and you see people that are standing out there in front of their car [on] their cellphones, trying to call to get help,” Hood said. “But that’s definitely not where you want to be in that situation.” She suggests staying in the vehicle with seatbelt fastened until help arrives if at all possible.

Hood also shared a handful of other disturbing statistics:

  • Missouri saw 27 fatalities in work zones in 2020, with 60% of those taking place in the St. Louis area.
  • 40% of the state’s pedestrian fatalities last year occurred in the St. Louis region.
  • Motorcyclist fatalities have increased by 40% so far in 2021. (A new Missouri law that went into effect in August 2020 — legislation MoDOT pushed back against — allows licensed riders 26 or older to ride without helmets if they have proof of health insurance.)

Hood pointed listeners to savemolives.com/mcrs for more information on crashes in Missouri. She also encouraged listeners to check out Show-Me Zero, a strategic highway safety plan for eliminating fatalities and serious injuries on Missouri roadways.

“It’s really going to help you understand what the crash problem is,” she said of the plan, “and it’s going to help you understand how you can contribute to fixing that problem. And it really does come down to the behavior of the driver.”

She added: “Folks need to understand that if you choose to drive way too fast, and if you’re careless, there’s consequences. And you could die, or worse yet, you could kill somebody else. Just because we can drive faster doesn’t mean that we should drive faster. We need to put safety first.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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