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Opinion: Traffic safety in Missouri – A deadly serious problem

These are dangerous times for Missouri motorists and road users. Crash fatalities skyrocketed to a 13-year high in 2020, with nearly 1,000 deaths, including 120 pedestrians, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT). Speeding, distracted and impaired driving, and lack of seat belt use all contributed to this alarming increase. While every Missourian deserves a safe drive, bike ride, walk, or roll, the data shows that far too many are not reaching their destinations safely.

Cathy Chase

These tragedies are compounded by the fact that they are preventable with known solutions. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates) publishes the Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws report each year outlining 16 traffic safety laws proven to reduce crashes, fatalities, and injuries and rating states on their enactment. Missouri is notably at the bottom of the pack with only three laws on the books.  

One of the laws tracked in the report is an all-rider motorcycle helmet requirement. Unfortunately, Aug. 28 will mark one year since Missouri repealed its law, and the impact has been as expected. According to media reports from mid-June citing MODOT, motorcycle fatalities were up 40 percent over the previous year, with 18 motorcyclists who were not wearing a helmet killed, compared to only two unhelmeted fatalities at the same point in 2020. This lifesaving law should be reenacted.

In addition to lacking an all-rider helmet law, Missouri is one of 16 states without a primary enforcement seat belt law for drivers and passengers, and one of just four that has not passed an all-driver text messaging ban. Child safety also could be improved by enacting a rear-facing through age 2 or older law as well as upgrading the state’s booster seat law. The state is missing six of the seven laws Advocates recommends for protecting novice teen drivers and those who share the roads with this inexperienced group. Lastly, an open container law that complies with federal requirements is needed.

In addition to being backed by research, these laws are strongly supported by the public. For example, polling by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety on laws mandating helmets for all motorcycle riders finds overwhelming support (82 percent).  A survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found more than 90-percent support for state laws banning texting or emailing while driving. A  2020 survey commissioned by Advocates similarly found 90-percent support for the passage of state laws to prohibit distracting activities behind the wheel while still allowing phones to be used for getting directions.  

Safety advocates in Missouri understand that these measures prevent crashes or mitigate their impact, save lives, and keep families whole. Lawmakers in Jefferson City should expect continued calls during the next legislative session for progress on efforts to curb distracted driving, ensure everyone buckles up on every trip, prevent motorcyclist fatalities, better protect child passengers, and other critical traffic safety issues. These tried and true solutions will reduce the horrific death and injury toll as well as associated crash costs borne by all taxpayers in the state.