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There have been five crash fatalities on Illinois 158 since October. What’s to blame?

Illinois State Police address fatal crashes on Illinois 158

In this BND file video from December 2016, Illinois State Police Trooper Calvin Dye Jr. says ISP has seen three fatal crashes in two months on Illinois 158 between Belleville and Columbia. Statewide, the number of fatal crashes and fatalities are
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In this BND file video from December 2016, Illinois State Police Trooper Calvin Dye Jr. says ISP has seen three fatal crashes in two months on Illinois 158 between Belleville and Columbia. Statewide, the number of fatal crashes and fatalities are

In less than four months, five people have died in crashes on Illinois 158 between Belleville and Columbia.

Jody Graff, 48, of Columbia, died after her minivan struck the rear of a dump truck on Illinois 158 near Roenicke Road on Oct. 18.

Less than two months later, on Dec. 9, a wreck on Illinois 158 near Belleville between an SUV and a truck killed three people: driver Alejandro Salen, 48, of Belleville, and passengers Jerilyn Hess, 74, of Columbia, and Christopher Craig, 24, of Dupo.

Most recently, in the early morning hours of Dec. 19, Marlene A. Horn, 68, of Millstadt, was pronounced dead after the driver of an SUV crossed the center line and struck her sedan head-on on Illinois 158 near Roachtown Road.

Is Illinois 158 a dangerous road?

State police and local firefighters say it can be — only if a driver isn’t paying close attention.

Trooper Calvin Dye Jr., a spokesman for Illinois State Police in Collinsville, says rural sections of state highways can be “extremely dangerous.” It varies how often accidents happen on certain state highways, but Dye said it’s not uncommon for troopers to respond to Illinois 158 as well as state routes 4, 13, 15, 161 and 177 for crashes. Dye said state police also rely on counties and local police agencies to patrol state routes.

Speeding is one factor on state highways. Drunken driving is another. But troopers believe distracted driving is a major reason the number of fatal crashes went up in 2016 across the state. The cause of two fatal crashes on Illinois 158 in December are still under investigation, but in a separate October crash, police suspected a minivan driver, Graff, was distracted when her vehicle ran into the back of the dump truck.

Illinois State Police trooper Calvin Dye Jr. talks about the fatal wreck on Illinois 158 south of Belleville on Dec. 9, 2016. The Ford Escape driver and two passengers in the Chevy pickup all died, with only the truck driver surviving.

“Usually on two-lane highways, when cars are going through town or city, there aren’t many accidents until they get to the rural parts of the two-lane highways,” Dye said. “When it becomes rural and there are cornfields on each side of the driver, they tend to begin to speed excessively. A lot of people start daydreaming. They just clearly don’t pay attention to the roadway. They become distracted with the cellphone, with the radios. We see our worst crashes here in District 11 on the rural parts of state highways.”

State police say they’ve also seen crashes where people have been distracted by eating fast food. Last May, a 24-year-old man from Arkansas was cited after rear-ending an Illinois State Police car while apparently eating a meal from Jack in the Box.

Chester Borkowski Jr., fire chief of the Northwest Fire Protection District, said he could think of at least six times this past year when firefighters responded to serious crashes on Illinois 158. The fire department says it typically goes out to 158 when serious injuries are involved or when people are trapped in their vehicle as a result of a crash.

“We’re seeing more and more of them, whether it’s from distracted driving or people looking at their personal data devices,” Borkowski said. “Put down the cellphones, put down the iPads and don’t worry about your GPS. Be aware of your surroundings, know where you’re going and use common sense because I’m sure these are a big factors police are looking at.”

The fire chief said his department spent more than four hours on Illinois 158 at the scene of the fatal Dec. 9 crash. Swansea Fire Department and Millstadt firefighters assisted. A toxicology report for the driver of the SUV, Salen, is expected to be made available sometime in January. Salen, in 2014, had been cited for driving under the influence. Police said Salen’s SUV had crossed the center line.

People need to slow down pay attention to what they’re doing. A lot of it is speed, and a lot of them may be on their phones. It’s dangerous road, for one reason or another.

Millstadt fire chief Kurt Pellmann

Millstadt’s fire chief, Kurt Pellmann, said firefighters there in just the past two months have worked several accidents along 158. Millstadt firefighters went to 22 vehicle accidents on Illinois 158 in 2016, accounting for nearly half of the 48 crashes to which they responded during the year. According to the fire department’s log, most of the crashes recorded on that road resulted in injuries.

“People need to slow down pay attention to what they’re doing. A lot of it is speed, and a lot of them may be on their phones,” Pellmann said.

In response to an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request, IDOT provided a list of five highway improvement projects it has completed between Belleville and Columbia on Illinois 158 in the past five years. IDOT said in the documents that projects were done in an effort to make the state highway safer and “to improve traffic operations by bringing the roadway up to policy standards.”

The most recent project was finished in September 2015 when IDOT said it installed rumble strips on existing shoulders on Illinois 158 between Campbell Lane in Columbia and Aaron Drive in Belleville.

More than two years ago, IDOT constructed two roundabouts in a major project on Centreville Avenue, also known as Illinois 158. The roundabouts were placed at the Illinois 15 eastbound ramp and South Belt West in Belleville to alleviate highway traffic entering and exiting Belleville city limits.

Other past projects, from November 2009 to May 2014, focused on resurfacing the road, installing shoulders, improving drainage and improving intersections from the south junction of Illinois 15 to Illinois 3 near Columbia.

Fatalities, deadly crashes up in Illinois

The five deaths that have been reported on Illinois 158 are among 41 traffic fatalities that have been documented in St. Clair County in 2016, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Statewide, numbers show that both fatal crashes and traffic fatalities are up. Fatalities are broken down by drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists and others who died as occupants of non-motor vehicles. IDOT said there were 999 deadly crashes that happened in the state in 2016, an increase from 914 in 2015. Crash fatalities were at an nine-year high by the end of 2016 with 1,081 deaths — an increase from 998 deaths in 2015.

Out of all the counties in the metro-east, St. Clair County had the most fatalities in 2016 with 41, according to IDOT’s statewide data map. Madison County had the second most fatalities with 21. Other counties reported far fewer deaths, including Randolph County with 10, Washington County with eight, Monroe County with three, Bond County with two and Clinton County with two.

Dye said that while the state’s fatal crash data is alarming, it’s also preventable.

“From a law enforcement standpoint, everyone thinks it can’t happen to them. A lot of times on the tail-end of these crashes, usually the innocent person ends up being seriously injured or deceased, so that really hurts us and makes us want to remove distracted drivers off the roadway, drunken drivers off the roadway,” Dye said. “People have to hold themselves accountable.”

Kaitlyn Schwers: 618-239-2526, @kaitlynschwers

Year

County

Fatal crashes

Fatalities

2011

St. Clair

30

31

Madison

20

23

Monroe

9

11

2012

St. Clair

27

28

Madison

34

40

Monroe

5

8

2013

St. Clair

38

45

Madison

26

28

Monroe

3

3

2014

St. Clair

29

31

Madison

32

33

Monroe

3

3

2015

St. Clair

34

39

Madison

32

33

Monroe

3

4

2016

St. Clair

38

41

Madison

21

21

Monroe

3

3

Source: Illinois Department of Transportation

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