Over the past several decades, Missouri’s traffic fatality rate has steadily improved. Stricter DWI enforcement led to fewer drunk driving accidents. New roads were engineered to improve safety. More drivers wore seat belts and drove newer cars that had airbags and could better withstand crashes.
And after the recession reduced the amount of time many Missourians spent on the roads, deaths fell to lows not seen in generations. By 2014, when adjusted for miles traveled, Missouri road fatalities had fallen to less than a third of what they were in the 1970s.
But some of the gains in lives saved have been wiped away in the past two years, mirroring a troubling pattern seen nationwide. In Missouri, the number of traffic deaths is on pace to top 900 this year, a threshold not crossed since 2008. This also is likely to be the largest two-year increase in traffic deaths in more than 20 years, although fatalities remain well below the 2005 peak of 1,257.
Illinois is seeing a similar trend. Fatalities there total 989 so far this year, compared with 900 at the same time last year. Deaths rose by 8 percent in 2015 and are up 10.6 percent this year.
Transportation officials and analysts say a key factor driving the increases is simply that people are spending more time on the roads, making a rise in accidents inevitable. An improved economy and low gas prices lead to more congestion, said Bill Whitfield, highway safety director for the Missouri Department of Transportation.
“We know when unemployment rates go up, when fuel prices increase, we typically see a reduction in traffic crashes,” he said, noting that Missouri saw six straight years of declines in road fatalities between 2005 and 2011.
More cars on the roads, however, don’t fully account for the jump in fatal crashes. Total miles traveled by all Missouri drivers rose by 1.4 percent last year, yet fatalities jumped by 13.6 percent. Deaths are up by an additional 7 percent this year, and many analysts think that distracted driving — particularly from smartphone use — is to blame.
Reliable data on the influence of technological distraction are hard to come by. Drivers who survive accidents might be reluctant to admit they were looking at a phone right before a crash. Without cellphone records, which aren’t always obtained by law enforcement through a search warrants after an accident, phone use is often impossible to verify. As a result, estimates of the role phones or other in-car technology play in distracted driving vary widely: A 2013 National Safety Council study, for instance, found that the share of accidents where accident records indicated the driver was using a phone ranged from below 1 percent in some states to more than 10 percent elsewhere.
“There is incredible underreporting of fatalities due to distraction,” said Ken Kolash, who directs the council’s statistical reporting systems. Caveats aside, Kolash said government figures do support the notion that distraction is partly responsible for more fatal accidents, which began rising at the end of 2014.
While nationwide surveys show distraction is up among all age groups, Kolash said, “it’s not surprising that young people are really driving this trend.”
In particular, he said, “we saw a really big increase in (deaths of) vulnerable users,” he said — meaning pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Distraction is often a factor in such accidents, he said. In Missouri, fatal crashes involving motorcyclists (116 so far) have jumped by 30 percent this year.
In looking deeper into Missouri’s traffic data, no other clear trends arise that would explain the growing number of deaths. Fatal crashes are up among drivers in nearly all age ranges. The increase isn’t disproportionately among drivers who were drinking or not wearing seat belts. And the rise in fatal accidents isn’t geographically concentrated in any one part of the state, although the St. Louis region has seen a slightly larger increase than other areas have.
To Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. John Hotz, the effect of driver smartphone use is undeniable.
“I think anytime you drive, you see people looking more at their phone than operating their vehicles,” he said. “There’s no doubt.”
People like to convince themselves that they’re multitasking, but they’re not, he said.
“When you’re texting, you’re texting, even when you’re sitting behind the wheel of a car going 55 miles an hour.”
Alarmed by the 10 percent rise in deaths nationwide during the first six months of 2016, the Safety Council and U.S. Department of Transportation launched the “Road to Zero” campaign in October, with a goal to eliminate road fatalities within 30 years.
The effort involves promoting a variety of strategies, such as improving seat belt use, installing more rumble strips on roads and providing grants to organizations working to reduce road fatalities.
Even without the challenge of eliminating technological distraction, Hotz and others are quick to point out that there would still be huge numbers of traffic deaths each year, since a large percentage of accidents still involve drivers who are speeding, intoxicated or distracted by something besides a smartphone.
And thousands more lives could be saved each year if more people wore seat belts. Of those who died on Missouri roads last year, 60 percent weren’t wearing seat belts.
“The causes,” Hotz said, “have been pretty much the same for the 27-plus years I’ve been around.”