Flashing signs on the shoulders of Interstate 70 on Tuesday in Missouri told motorists of the more than 600 traffic fatalities that have occurred on the state roads so far this year and how 59 percent involved people who were not wearing seat belts.
As of Wednesday, the total fatalities were 609 compared with 589 at this time last year. The total for all of last year was 870.
Kansas so far has had 281 traffic deaths, which is up 21 percent over this time last year. The total number for 2015 was 355 — the second lowest in state history.
The increase in traffic fatalities is a national problem. The September-October issue to AAA Midwest Traveler reports that preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed a nearly 8 percent increase in fatalities in motor vehicles in 2015.
An estimated 35,200 people died in 2015 compared with 32,675 in 2014. “Road deaths have increased for five consecutive quarters starting with the fourth quarter of 2014,” the magazine reports.
Falling gas prices are partly to blame, resulting in more people doing more driving. In addition, distracted drivers and drivers falling asleep at the wheel also bear some of the responsibility for the fatality count.
The magazine reports that driver and passenger deaths increased 6 percent and 7 percent respectively, the nation also experienced a 10 percent increase in pedestrian deaths, 13 percent jump in fatalities among bicyclists and a 9 percent increase in deaths among motorcyclists.
In addition, deaths for younger drivers — people age 15 to 20 — increased 10 percent.
A simple fix for many of the fatal crashes would involve people using safety equipment in vehicles such as seat belts. Getting all motorists and passengers to wear seat belts and children to be strapped into approved car seats would seem like a reasonable expectation.
Seat belt use has become the national norm, though rates of self-reported seat belt use vary widely from state to state, with a high of 94 percent in Oregon, and a low of 59 percent in North Dakota, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. In Kansas 74.2 percent of people self-reported seat belt use compared with 73.1 percent in Missouri.
Not all traffic wrecks are fatal, but they are costly. CDC said that in 2013, nonfatal car crashes with injuries cost more than $45 billion with a lifetime of medical expenses and lost time at work.
But getting folks to follow through on actual seat belt use is the challenge. The Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety has as its goal to reduce traffic fatalities to 700 or less by 2016. Universal seat belt use would help.
The coalition’s goal of 850 or fewer fatalities was met two years early by 2012. Dropping to under 700 certainly is possible if more people buckle up to live.
In Kansas, Sept. 18-24 is “Child Passenger Safety Week.” Let’s hope it gets more people to pay attention to buckling kids in approved car seats, and that all adults will start doing it year-round.