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Fatal accidents capture attention, renew focus on safety

Deadly crashes rise only slightly, but drivers are urged to pay attention

Published: Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 5:00 a.m. CDT

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Statistically, Grundy County did not suffer a significant increase in fatalities due to traffic accidents than previous years, but law enforcement officials say any loss of life is too much and, year after year, it doesn't seem to be decreasing.

Looking back at the most read Morris Daily Herald articles of 2012, crime and accident reports top the list. But this year, those reports of loss of life seem to top the local news.

The Grundy County Coroner's office saw seven deaths due to traffic accidents this year, Coroner John Callahan said, but this does not include accidents in Grundy County whose victims were transported to hospitals out of the county and later died. Last year, there were five fatalities due to traffic accidents.

Although seven may not seem alarming, one Morris man had just become a grandfather for the first time and another was a 26-year-old special education teacher from Ottawa.

In a neighboring county, a young sister and brother of Seneca died when the sister, who was driving, left her lane for unknown reasons and her vehicle was then hit by a semitrailer, killing her and her 12-year-old brother.

Traffic accidents happen for all sorts of reasons, but many times it's because of someone driving while impaired, whether that is because of being under the influence of drugs or due to a distraction, such as texting or talking on a cell phone, Morris Police Chief Brent Dite said.

"The reality is, people are in control of their own decisions," he said.

Dite said they make a decision to drive while intoxicated or to pick up their phone and send a text while behind the wheel.

Of the seven traffic fatalities handled by the coroner's office, five of the seven victims had alcohol in their system, Callahan said.

This doesn't include others in the area who were killed or injured due to being hit by a drunk driver, such as the Ottawa woman who was killed in an accident where her boyfriend was charged with aggravated driving under the influence.

"It just comes down to the responsibility of the driver," Callahan said. "Go back to the basics of driver's ed. We tell the young kids this is not a given, it's something you earn, a driver's license, and it is a ton of responsibility that comes along with that right to drive."

"Overall, we need to pay attention to the road and make good decisions," he continued.

It's every law enforcement officials' goal to decrease fatalities and accidents in their jurisdiction, Dite said. This is why, in addition to enforcement, agencies have made education a priority.

The Grundy County Coroner's office has spear-headed a don't drink and drive campaign by telling "Meagan's Story" all around the county. Meagan Ahlstrom, 24, was traveling on Illinois 47 in June 2009, when a drunk driver swerved into her lane near the Grundy County Fairgrounds, hitting her vehicle, killing Meagan and injuring her mother.

Callahan had the actual vehicle permanently attached to a trailer, which he displays through the community throughout the year and in other communities that request it. It is displayed with signs that say “Don’t Drink and Drive” and “Meagan’s Story.” The passenger side of the car is damaged, but the driver's side is destroyed.

Grundy County, the city of Morris and Morris police are strong proponents of the Safety Training to Encourage Profitable Services (STEPS) program through the Grundy County No Tolerance Task Force, Dite said.

STEPS is designed to help bar staff and retail liquor stores maintain a quality, profitable establishment that minimizes the risks associated with over-serving, drunken drivers and underage sales.

Dite said they encourage local liquor establishments to send at least one employee to STEPS to become a certified trainer. Then they can use that employee to train the rest of their staff on preventing customers from leaving their business intoxicated or from driving after drinking too much. The more trained, the better.

"It's not just law enforcement," Dite said. "We have to work together."

Local law enforcement also works closely with the schools to address distracted driving in driver's education classes, he continued, but at the end of they day most young drivers have cellphones and have to chose to do the right thing.

"Part of the problem is it is difficult to enforce some of the distracted driving laws, so you are going to have to rely on education and parents being involved in making sure their children are aware of the dangers of distracted driving," Grundy County Interim Sheriff Kevin Callahan said.

When giving a citation for texting while driving, an officer has to be able to prove that is what they were doing, he said.

To help increase enforcement and awareness, the sheriff's department participates in Illinois Department of Transportation and federal programs to enhance patrol for drinking and driving violators, Callahan said. The sheriff's department has had a dedicated traffic unit for more than 20 years, and increases patrols during holiday weekends when alcohol consumption increases, like on New Year's Eve.

It's hard to pinpoint a specific reason for increased traffic accidents, but the more the city and county grow, the more traffic there is on the road and the greater the chance of accidents.

Of the sheriff's four fatal traffic accidents it handled this year, three of them involved semi trucks. And with the county having two, two-lane highways, the chance of having a collision with a semi is increased.

"The risk of bodily injury and death when someone crashes into a semi is a lot greater than when someone crashes with another car," said Callahan, "making it even more important to pay attention to the road and the road only."

Another way to do your part to protect yourself, your loved ones and your community is to offer your services.

With New Year's Eve just a few days away, Dite encourages people to not only make sure you have a designated driver, but to be one.

"Tell (your family and friends) you are someone they can call," Dite said. "Each time, you don't know how many lives you saved with that one drive home."

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