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Highway 61: Where do you want this killin' done?

May 15, 2001
By: Nick White
State Capital Bureau

God says, "You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin' you better run."

Well Abe says, "Where you want this killin' done?"

God says, "Out on Highway 61."

-Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited," 1965.

CANTON, Mo. - The air smells like tragedy. People have cried here, and people have died here. Memorial crosses, labeled with the names of people killed along this highway, speckle the roadside like traffic signs.

"Death Alley," a 24-mile stretch of Highway 61, sits 35 miles north of Hannibal in rural northeast Missouri. Although Bob Dylan wrote about a different Highway 61, locals say this one is equally menacing.

Locals call the highway a grim reaper, arbitrarily taking the lives of drivers with its narrow, two-lane design they say needs immediate expansion to four lanes.

Surrounded by towns of only 1,000 people or less, "Death Alley" car accidents killed 12 people from 1998-2000, 34 people since its opening in 1977, and in April 2001, one more, a 31-year-old man hit head-on by a semi-truck.

This deadly stretch of road has been singled out by state legislators and Gov. Bob Holden as a symbol for dangerous roads all across Missouri. Accidents on state roads kill an average of three people a day, according to the state's Highway Patrol. There were 1,147 casualties in 2000, up 53 from 1999.

Highway 61's accidents weren't drunk-and-drugged drivers falling asleep at the wheel or young drivers being rambunctious and careless. They were people hurrying, trying to pass and making a bad decision.

"Death Alley" is so named because it is a short, bottlenecked stretch of highway that has steady traffic of 18-wheelers and cars roaring by each other in excess of 70 miles per hour. There is little or no shoulder. Curves and hills add an extra element of danger. Pass and no pass zones alternate every several thousand feet.

Canton, a town with a 2,500 population, one stoplight and whitewashed tire swings in front yards, sits on Highway 61.

The tiny town of Canton fears losing residents to the road so much that the town's fire chief, whose job entails cleaning up the fatal accidents and their carnage, said he is partially relieved to see out-of-state license plates on the wrecked cars.

"Sometimes you become numb from the accidents," Jeff McReynolds, the fire chief, said.

Canton has gained attention statewide recently because of a local high school student group, Students of Missouri Assisting Rural and Urban Transportation, actively lobbying lawmakers to spend more money on roads.

Cited by Holden as an example of a successful grassroots reform initiator, SMART was started when a student at their school was killed by another driver on Highway 61.

Kristin Hendrickson, then an 18-year-old senior at Canton R-V high school, was killed in March 2000 while driving home from work when she was hit head-on.

With long, flowing blond hair and a tall, slender frame, her friends said Hendrickson stole hearst at her school. She was a cheerleader and popular student, and she was an only child and only grandchild. Her personality was complex, her friends said, a combination of a "bad girl attitude" tempered with appreciation of gentler things like butterflies. With an ever-present smile, her presence could light up a room, her friends said.

"Even if she had a bad day, she had a smile on her face," said Andrew Parker, the 17-year-old vice president of SMART.

During her senior year, she told friends she dreamed of going to Truman State University the following fall. She accomplished part of that dream when Truman State admissions mailed her the good news that she had been admitted to the university. But her acceptance letter wouldn;t arrive until it was too late, one day after Hendrickson died on Highway 61.

Just after 9:00 on the night of the deadly accident, Hendirckson set out for home from work at Sam Goody Music, across the Mississippi River in nearby Quicy, Ill. She was heading north on HIghway 61 and had just entered the road's zone where it narrows from four to two lanes.

Less than thirty seconds later, a south-bound pickup truck entered her lane to pass. Her Z-24 and the truck collided.

The collision knocked her car into a steep roadside ravine, overgrown with grass and littered with beer cans and cigarette boxes. The truck flew off the other side of the road. Its whole front half was destroyed. To this day, tiny, crushed pieces of her car can be seen in the roadside's foot-tall grass.

Hendrickson dies instantaneously, while the other driver suffered injuries.

McReynolds, who arrived at the scene within minutes, winces as he remembers having to do his job the night of the accident. Within a half-hour of getting there, he noticed Hendrickson's father coming down the road. His daughter had not arrived home from work yet, and her father did not know what had happened.

Telling Hendrickson's father of the death, McReynolds said, was one of the most tramuatic things he's ever done.

"There were a lot of terrible memories that night," he said. "That one was particularly tough for me."

Now, Hendrickson's mother must pass the site of her daughetrs; death twice a day, firve times a week, when she goes to work. Highway 61 is the quickest way to work.

"I will always be with you" is enscribed at the base of Hendrickson's ashen-black headstone. That message has become eerily familiar over the last year, as family and friends have embraced her life as a symbol for safety on state roads.

If Missouri's Transportation Department had expanded the road to four lanes, the drivers' fates might have been different, McReynolds said. "For us, four lanes means safety," McReynolds said.

State-numbered highways, which can have two or four lanes, have the largest death toll in Missouri. Highway 61 is a U.S.-numbered highway, the type of roadway that has the second most fatal accidents. Interstates have the fourth-most casualties.

The problem is that highways are too congested, according to the superintendent of the Missouri Highway Patrol, which is the state's traffic accident data collector. The Patrol's superintendent said the agency spends approximately 75% of its resources driving on state-controlled roads.

Because Missouri is a crossroads for coast-to-coast traffic, there are often too many travellers on the roads, the superintendent, Weldon Wilhoit, said. Too many cars and not enough lanes leave little room for error, he said.

"Our roads are more crowded," Wilhoit, a 32-year veteran of the Patrol, said. "When you have more people sharing the roads, there's more trouble."

Boone County ranked behind six other Missouri counties in fatal accidents in 1999, with five of those counties in the more populous urban counties of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Department officials single out Highway 63 as Boone's major roadway that could most use improvement, besides what the department has declared its biggest statewide concern, Highway 70.

But department officials have complained that they do not receive enough resources from the state to even maintain existing roads. The department wants another $1 billion a year.

"We've still got many roads that need help," J.T. Yarnell, the department's chief engineer, said. "With the money we have now, it barely takes care of what we have."

Using the vitality of Hendrickson's spirit, the SMART group has advocated change to lawmakers. They have traveled to big and small cities throughout the state and were mentioned in Holden's January State of the State speech.

A week after Hendrickson died, SMART set out to expand Highway 61 from two to four lanes. They collected more than 5,000 signatures in a petition to Missouri's Highways Commission asking that Highway 61 be expanded.

The group and their message succeeded, and the commission selected the two-lane portion of Highway 61 going through Canton as a priority. Now, the portion of Highway 61 going through Canton is slated to be completed by 2004; originally, it was 2020.

"They're a very effective group," said J.T. Yarnell, the department's chief engineer. "Citizens around the state should recognize that there is a need...It's not just Highway 61 that is the problem."

SMART members said initially all they wanted was to expand Highway 61. But, by carrying one Hendrickson's legacy, their message of better transportation has carried across the state.

"We're trying to get it speeded up as much as we can to save as many lives as we can," said Andrew Scott, the vice-president of SMART. "Everything we've done was because of her."