By Jim Finnegan, Columbia Missourian
The most emotionally powerful moment at the first day of a Missouri highway safety summit Wednesday was the speech given by Carey Portell.
Portell, of St. James, is a survivor of a drunken driving crash who now represents ThinkFirst Missouri, an organization aimed at preventing traumatic injuries. She was the keynote speaker at Missouri’s 2017 Highway Safety and Traffic Blueprint Conference at the Holiday Inn Executive Center, where she, like others, emphasized the role of human choice in traffic crashes.
“Drunk driving is not a mistake; it is not an accident; it is a choice,” Portell said.
The three-day conference, which will conclude on Friday, brings together hundreds of Missouri Department of Transportation officials, representatives of law enforcement and educators in an effort to improve Missouri’s highway safety. Some members of the audience were in tears as Portell told her story.
On the evening of Dec. 29, 2010, Portell said, she was driving with her children just a short distance from home when she was hit by a driver who had a blood alcohol content of 0.265, well above the legal limit.
“The last thing I can remember are his headlights,” Portell said. “I remember screaming so loud that my lungs hurt.”
The impaired driver died during the accident, and Portell’s children survived with relatively minor injuries. It would take four years for Portell to walk again, though. To this day, she wears leg braces to help with balance and says her condition is likely to worsen in the future.
Portell thanked the first responders who removed her from her car. Toward the end of her speech, she talked about the importance of her own choices in making a full and happy recovery.
“If I choose to be bitter, angry, miserable ... what kind of person would I be?” she said.
During the opening session of the conference, MoDOT safety and traffic engineer Nicole Hood gave a grim assessment of the safety of Missouri’s highways. She said there were 946 traffic deaths in Missouri in 2016. That marks the highest number since 2008 and a 9 percent increase from 2015. Hood also noted that human behavior was the biggest single factor in traffic crashes.
The National Safety Council, which examines road safety across the country, rated Missouri as “off-track” in six of eight categories for traffic safety, including distracted driving, seat belts and child passengers. Hood said Missouri is likely to be rated as off-track in a seventh category, drunken driving, next year following the state legislature’s decision to cut funding for DUI checkpoints on Missouri highways.
Col. Sandra Karsten of the Missouri State Highway Patrol gave a speech reminding the audience of the impact of drunken driving.
“Financial costs, be they medical or legal, the loss of a job, the cost of classes after an arrest, the embarrassment of an arrest — all combine to make an impact,” Karsten said. “Drunk driving also impacts us in ways that are harder to measure. Think about the time lost from work, the time lost while healing from a loss or an injury, or in some cases, depending on the severity, having your future dreams changed in an instant.”
Karsten praised those in attendance for their work to boost highway and road safety, and she urged them to continue looking for solutions.
“Whether you work in education, enforcement or another position of safety, you are making a difference each day,” she said.
One of the final speakers on Wednesday was Columbia City Manager Mike Matthes, who discussed Columbia’s Vision Zero Action Plan, a project with the goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities and injuries by 2030. Matthes said the idea for Vision Zero originated in Sweden in 1997 and that Sweden’s plan helped reduce traffic fatalities by 73 percent.
The policy resolution for Vision Zero was adopted by the Columbia City Council in December. Columbia is the 22nd city in the U.S. to adopt Vision Zero and the first in Missouri.