WSIU InFocus: Traffic Safety in Southern Illinois - Part 2

Jul 27, 2017

Southern Illinoisans are asking a lot of questions about an uptick in crashes along Interstate 57 and Highway 13. What’s causing them? How can they be prevented?

“So May 20-July 20 of 2016 there were a total of 78 crashes. Of those, 19 involved a semi. There were 17 with personal injury, and zero fatalities. So same time period 2017 (May 20-July 20 2017), total crashes was 108 – which boils down to a 28% increase. Semis involved – 33 of those. Personal Injury crashes 24 – which represents a 30% increase. And there were two fatality crashes, same period.”

Trooper Joey Watson with the Illinois State Police says everyone has to pitch in. He says a change in mentality is the only way to make roadways safer – and that means drivers must slow down and pay attention, seatbelts must be worn, and drugs and alcohol should have no place in a driver’s system.

“Go to the Centers for Disease Control. Other than heroin abuse, the average person and what they deal with on a daily basis – by far and away, the number one most dangerous thing that we do is simply get in a car and go down the roadway. You don’t have to be a driver, you can be a passenger. Simply getting in a car is the most dangerous thing that we do.” 

So what’s causing the spike in crashes? Some of it is sheer volume. More than 40-thousand vehicles traveled a stretch of I-57 from Marion to Johnston City last month each day. Watson says the Illinois Department of Transportation has the region on its radar for lane expansion, but it’s not that easy.

“You know, they would love to go out and say, ‘We’re going to do this immediately. We’re going to put three lanes in, we’re going to concrete the median wall, it’s going to be wonderful and we’re going to be able to accommodate this flow of traffic.’ But at the end of the day, it still boils down to funding.”

Other causes boil down to what police call the Fatal Four: Speeding, distracted driving, impaired driving, and occupant restraint. Watson says you can protect yourself by slowing down, paying attention, wearing a seat belt, and staying away from drugs and alcohol. And there’s more.

“And I know this is crazy, but think about your choices in the grand scheme of things. Choose cars that have good crash ratings. Make sure you’re putting on your seatbelt. Make sure your equipment is up to date. Make sure that you’ve gotten your airbags checked – you know what I’m saying? All of your maintenance schedules – make sure you’re obeying your maintenance schedules because that’s what the manufacturer recommends to keep the vehicle in peak performance. If that includes adding wiper fluid before you leave on a winter trip, that could make the difference in safety.”

You cannot imagine the horror of that, until you've existed in it. I don't like doing it, I don't like the person having to deal with that. There's nothing good about it. ~ ISP Trooper Joey Watson, on having to inform families they've lost a loved one in a traffic crash

Police play a role in maintaining safety, too. Watson says that’s difficult with budget cuts and fewer troopers on the roads – but he says State and local police are doing what they can. He points to a recent crackdown on I-57 from mid-May through June.

“In order to address the I-57 detail issues, we conducted 423 traffic stops, wrote a total of 338 citations, a total of 231 warnings. Of those, 269 were speed citations and 114 of them were speed warnings. We are active. We are actively pursuing solutions to this. But we need help.”

And that help comes in the form of obeying the rules of the road – and driving defensively. Being ready for what might happen keeps drivers paying attention, and able to avoid potential hazards. Watson says relying on police alone to bring the numbers down won’t work.

“Can law enforcement fix your problem? Are there enough of us? Statistically, we are one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. population. There are not enough law enforcement officers to stop everybody making bad choices behind the wheel of their vehicle – there just isn’t.”

Watson says it’s frustrating to have to repeat the same things every day. But he says if just one person hears his tips and slows down, or puts on a seatbelt, and a life is saved… it’s worth it.

“One of the worst things that I do – one of the worst things that you would ever force a Trooper to do – is to walk up to someone’s door. I’ve got chills on my arms, thinking about walking up to someone and saying, ‘I’m sorry. I regret to inform you that you’ve lost a loved one in a traffic crash,’ because of something stupid, like LOL or five miles an hour. You cannot imagine the horror of that, until you’ve existed in it. I don’t like doing it, I don’t like the person having to deal with that. There’s nothing good about it, and all of it – 99% of these crashes are preventable. Probably more than that. It’s a choice. At the end of the day, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Am I a part of the problem, or am I a part of the solution.”

Watson says it may be a while before the number of crashes on I-57 and Route 13 go down. And it’ll definitely take a while for IDOT to get the funding it needs to build additional lanes and other safety measures on those roadways. He says in the meantime, taking a proactive approach to safe driving and traveling is the best way to get from point A to point B.

“Do this for somebody. Don’t make this about just traffic choices. Make it real. Make it a part of your life. Make it about you. Because it is. It’s a mentality.”