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A weathered wooden cross stands at the intersection of Highway 34 and County Road 456 in Bollinger County, a silent testament to another life that was lost on a dangerous rural road.
At the intersection, Highway 34 curves in both directions, creating a blind spot for anyone who turns from the county road onto the highway. As the road winds its way through the countryside of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties, straight stretches are followed by sharp S curves and hills, with the recommended speed sometimes dropping to 35 mph.
Last year, Highway 34 took the life of 61-year-old Barbara Caraway of Cape Girardeau when the van she was riding in ran off the road and overcorrected six miles east of Silva.
It's a scene that's repeated over and over throughout the state each year. In 2004, 1,126 people lost their lives to traffic accidents. But, according to recent research by The Road Information Program, traffic fatalities are higher in rural areas than anywhere else.
The report, published earlier this month, studied traffic fatalities across the United States from 1999 to 2003 and found that more than half the fatalities occurred on rural, two-lane roads. Only 28 percent of traffic flowed on those roads in that time period, it reported.
Missouri ranks 11th in the number of fatalities on rural, non-interstate roads, according to the report, with 3,547 in that four-year period. Altogether, 61 percent of the state's traffic fatalities happened on those roads, only 36 percent of the state's vehicle travel was on those roads.
One of those fatalities occurred in February 2004 when the Rev. Darren Larkin, pastor of the First Assembly of God Church in Chaffee, and his wife, Rebecca, were traveling north on Highway 25, two miles south of Gordonville. Their car was struck head-on on the curvy, hilly road when another driver improperly attempted to pass a semi. Rebecca Larkin was killed, and Darren Larkin suffered numerous broken bones.
"He passed in the curve and there was no shoulder," he said. "I veered to the right, and he struck the front passenger side of the car. If it had had a shoulder, I might have been able to escape, I don't know."
Larkin, who lived in Tennessee before moving here in September 2003, isn't surprised at Missouri's ranking for rural road fatalities.
"The roads in southern Missouri are the worst I've ever seen," he said.
The TRIP report blames narrow roads, sharp curves and a lack of money for improvements -- all things that affect rural Missouri.
Sgt. Larry Plunkett with the Missouri State Highway Patrol said it's largely a matter of outdated designs that haven't been improved to accommodate today's more fast-paced travel.
"A lot of our roadways were built at a time when shoulders weren't really a consideration," Plunkett said. "A lot of roads weren't engineered for the speed that people think their vehicle will travel."
Plunkett said the majority of fatal accidents on such roads are caused when the driver runs off the road and overcorrects on those narrow shoulders.
"For whatever reason, people get distracted or they drive faster than the vehicle or roadway is going to allow and they end up running off the road," he said.
Cpl. Jeff McCullough with the patrol's Jackson office said local fatal accidents haven't been concentrated in one area.
But one of the worst places locally for nonfatal accidents, said McCullough, is County Road 205, also known as Bloomfield Road. The road has one of the dangerous features Plunkett talked about -- no shoulders.
"Whenever it rains you can almost guarantee you're going to have a slide-off or an accident on Bloomfield Road," McCullough said.
MoDOT district engineer Scott Meyer said his agency routinely evaluates stretches of road for safety improvements based on traffic crash data. MoDOT has recently worked on the stretch of Highway 25 that killed Rebecca Larkin, widening the road and the shoulders. It has also performed work on Highway 34, improving the shoulders.
"There are so many miles of rural roads that you really don't have a program to do all of the rural roads, so you have to identify the areas where you're experiencing problems either through crash statistics or people telling you about a problem area," Meyer said.
With so much of Southeast Missouri's population living in rural areas, the simple volume of traffic on those routes means that many serious accidents will still occur.
"I would say easily 90 percent of our roadways are two-lane roads," Plunkett said. "That's where the majority of our people live, that's where the majority of our people drive. And most accidents happen close to home, so that's where the majority of our people are being killed."
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