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Deadly car crashes are at dangerously high levels, officials say

“Our roots run deep in this county. Our family farms, a couple of them from my ancestors are right on Route 15 here," said Illinois Rep. Charles Meier.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ill. — Winding past the county courthouse, horses, farms and fields of corn is a deadly problem. It's a problem Washington County, Illinois, native Charles Meier has seen pain his hometown. 

“Our roots run deep in this county. Our family farms, a couple of them from my ancestors are right on Route 15 here," said Illinois Rep. Charles Meier, (R) 108th district.

But Illinois Route 15 is where he’s lost his neighbors, people like Darlene Eggemann, who ran off the road and died just two months ago driving around a curve. Meier said at least 11 people have died on a 25-mile stretch of highway in the last 14 years. More have been injured. 

It’s not just Route 15.

“I've lost acquaintances. I've lost a dear friend," said Meier.

He shows us roads in Washington County, Illinois where car crashes have become too common. He knows something needs to change. 

“It seems like as everybody is going faster, they're all doing an extra ten or 15 miles an hour over," he said. 

And he said it’s worse since the pandemic.

“Everybody was locked up and it just seemed like they get on the road and they got to go… You could be the next victim on Route 15," he said. 

The Illinois lawmaker shows us the roads he drives daily. 

“How often do you think people are actually obeying the speed limit around these curves?” asked the I-Team's Paula Vasan.

“Not very often," he said.

Minutes into our drive, and a car passed us around a curve speeding blindly into what could have been oncoming traffic.

“I think it's kind of a new norm, I'm afraid. And it's going to be a very dangerous norm if that's the case," said Meier.

New federal estimates show traffic deaths jumped in early 2022 to hit a 20-year high, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

NHTSA estimates that 9,560 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the first quarter of 2022. This is an increase of about 7% as compared to the 8,935 fatalities projected for the same quarter in 2021. This would be the highest number of first-quarter fatalities since 2002. The fatality rate for the first quarter of 2022 increased to 1.27 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from the projected rate of 1.25 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles in the first quarter of 2021, according to NHTSA’s estimates.

Transportation experts from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said this uptick isn’t just because there are more cars on the road. People are driving more recklessly.

Officials in both Illinois and Missouri say the problem is speed and -- with phones in their hands -- distraction. 

A spokesperson with the Illinois Department of Transportation told us: 

“Unfortunately in 2021, we experienced an even higher number of fatalities, and 2022 seems to be on pace to be in the same range. This trend is not unique to Illinois. Nationwide fatalities have increased at comparable rates… The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is focused on the safety of our roads and is constantly monitoring and observing our system for any possible improvements to help save lives. Areas that influence the increase have shown to include risky behaviors such as speeding.”

A spokesperson with Illinois State Police said, "The ISP is committed to protecting all who travel on Illinois highways. Uniformed troopers patrol Illinois roadways across the state 24-7, 365 days a year. Officers specifically look for Fatal Four violations: distracted driving, driving under the influence, no occupant restraint, and speeding. All of these have been statistically identified as either significantly increasing the severity of a crash or directly relating to the cause of crashes in Illinois. At a minimum, ISP has at least one ISP patrol officer assigned to highways in Washington County every shift. Due to safety concerns on Illinois 15, ISP has increased patrols when possible and will continue to do so as staffing allows."  

A spokesperson with the Missouri State Highway Patrol said in 2021, Missouri had 1,016 traffic deaths in our state. That was the first time having more than 1,000 deaths since 2006 when we had 1,096 traffic deaths in the state. The biggest factor in the increase in fatalities is the increase in vehicles that are traveling at excessive speeds on our roadways, according to Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesperson John Hotz. 

“We first noticed an uptick in excessive speeders during the pandemic when we had less traffic on our roadways,” said Hotz. “The Patrol noticed a substantial increase in vehicles traveling more than 26 miles per hour above the speed limit. In fact, our troopers were writing tickets routinely for vehicles traveling over 100 miles per hour. Even with less traffic, we saw an increase in fatalities in 2020. That number continued to go up last year.

"When you look at how speed affects the outcome of traffic crashes, we know that the crashes when they do happen are more severe. Unfortunately, as traffic returned to normal levels, motorists continued to travel at excessive speeds and the fatal numbers last year reached a 15-year high in our state," Hotz said. "Inattention and impaired driving continue to be leading causes of crashes as well. Another huge factor in the outcome of traffic crashes is seat belt use. In Missouri, roughly 60% of those people who are required to wear seat belts are not restrained at the time they are involved in traffic crashes.

"To address the rise in fatalities, the Patrol has begun to utilize a data-driven approach to traffic enforcement. We want to ensure that we are focusing our enforcement efforts on the locations that are experiencing the highest number of traffic crashes and traffic violations," Hotz said. 

"We are also currently working with MoDOT as well as local law enforcement agencies on the Show - Me Zero Fatality Reduction Effort in the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas. In addition to enforcement efforts, we are educating people about the causes of these traffic crashes and the importance of wearing seat belts,” Hotz said. 

“Why are people not following the speed limit?” Vasan asked. 

“I think everybody's just in a hurry. That's one of the main reasons, everybody's in a rush to get where they're going," said Logan Bolton, a spokesperson with the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

The problem has become so bad, the Missouri State Highway Patrol started a new program five months ago to figure out where the most crashes are happening. 

“We're utilizing a data driven approach to traffic enforcement," said Bolton.

The result is a map the patrol created showing about 20 miles of highway on Interstates 270, 170, and 55, where 102 deaths and serious injuries have happened over three years. 

“We're trying to put as much of a law enforcement presence in those areas," said Bolton. “Hopefully they voluntarily adjust their driving habits to obeying the traffic laws.”

“Is it working?” Vasan asked. 

“As of now, we're at a 6% decrease from this time last year," said Bolton. 

He said there are fewer deaths in Missouri from car crashes. But crashes, he said, are still at dangerously high levels and avoidable. 

“We've stopped cars. In the last couple of years at 120 miles per hour, 125 miles per hour," said Bolton. 

Meier looks no further than memorials to remember why speeding isn’t worth it. 

“It helps people think about what they're driving into and to pay attention," he said. 

Before you press down harder on the gas, safety officials urge you to keep these tips in mind. Follow the speed limit. Wear your seatbelt. Put down your phone. And if you must use your phone, pull over safely. 

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