Deaths in Douglas County traffic accidents
1990 — 10
1991 — 17
1992 — 7
1993 — 13
1994 — 8
1995 — 18
1996 — 10
1997 — 5
1998 — 12
1999 — 12
2000 — 8
2001 — 12
2002 — 9
2003 — 14
2004 — 9
2005 — 6
2006 — 15
2007 — 5
2008 — 14
2009 — 7
2010* — 3
2011* — 5
— Source: Kansas Department of Transportation
*Statistics for 2010 and 2011 are unofficial.
When a piece of metal last Tuesday struck and later killed Cindy Burnett through the windshield that was supposed to protect her, the Lyndon woman became the fifth person to die on a Douglas County road so far this year.
That’s already nearly twice as many deaths than occurred in all of 2010, when three people were killed in traffic accidents in Douglas County.
Burnett also became the fourth person to die in less than two months — a period that started with a high-profile crossover crash April 16 on Kansas Highway 10 near Eudora that killed 5-year-old Cainan Shutt and the driver of the other car. That accident has spurred a study on the safety of the median of the major commuter highway between Lawrence and the suburban Kansas City area.
But at this point, the number of traffic deaths in Douglas County so far this year doesn’t seem to be approaching a record, compared with two decades worth of Kansas Department of Transportation data.
For example, 18 people died on Douglas County roadways in 1995, the most in statistics reviewed starting with 1990. More recently 14 people died in 2008 and 2003, and 15 were killed in 2006 crashes.
Steven Schrock, a Kansas University assistant professor of civil engineering, said it’s not uncommon for a few fatality crashes in one area to occur with a short time after a long period when there are zero or very few, which can cause emotional reactions from the public.
“They’re random by definition,” said Schrock, who studies highway safety.
He said state transportation officials must examine several years worth of data to determine trends about safety on specific roadways, which is what Gov. Sam Brownback has requested KDOT do when studying whether to place a cable barrier on the K-10 median.
Kim Qualls, a KDOT spokeswoman, said the state looks at trends for accidents on specific roadways and by the type of cause, such as inattentive driving or cross-median crashes.
“That’s why we review every situation. We look at all the details,” she said.
All of the fatality accidents in Douglas County this year have occurred on different roads:
• Kyle Snyder, 22, of rural Lecompton, died Feb. 4 in icy conditions when his pickup truck collided with an oncoming train in a crossing at East 950 Road.
• Cainan Shutt and Ryan Pittman, 24, both of Eudora, died in the April 16 crash when Pittman’s eastbound car crossed the median and struck the minivan Shutt was riding in with his grandparents and sister, who were all injured. The final autopsy report is not yet complete, but the Kansas Highway Patrol is investigating whether Pittman’s drug use could have contributed to his reaction time.
• Terry S. Star, 37, of Ottawa, died when his vehicle rolled early on May 18 off of U.S. Highway 59 about 5 miles south of Lawrence and into a field west of the highway.
• Cindy Burnett was riding in the passenger seat about noon Tuesday when her husband was driving the vehicle on the South Lawrence Trafficway north of Clinton Parkway, and she was struck by a metal object. Douglas County Sheriff’s officers last week were still investigating the case and trying to find the driver of a dark-colored oncoming pickup truck hauling a trailer with a piece of heavy equipment because officers believed the driver did not know the metal object came from the trailer.
Beyond studying the safety of certain stretches of road, Qualls said KDOT also looks at certain types of crashes for trends.
According to KDOT statistics, the type of accident that killed Burnett on Tuesday is relatively rare on Kansas roads when compared with the total number of crashes. For example, 73 loss-of-cargo accidents were reported statewide in 2009, out of 61,145 total crashes. In all loss-of-cargo crashes reported from 1990 to 2010, eight people died.
Alain Deroulette, a Lawrence resident who is a self-employed painter, said Burnett’s tragic death is a good reminder for all drivers to secure items, especially in pickup trucks. He says he sees objects falling in the road often and luckily there are no injuries or major damage.
“It’s incredible how often it happens, and we don’t hear about it,” Deroulette said.
Qualls said crash statistics can bring about certain educational campaigns as well, like against texting and driving or reminding drivers to be extra careful to secure objects in their vehicles.
“We all need reminders,” Qualls said. “And it’s important that we keep those educational messages out there as well as new ones.”