CORINTH - If you drive west from Alabama toward Corinth on U.S. 72, expect to move steadily along at 65 mph for 60 miles. But suddenly, you'll encounter a traffic light, and often a serious accident.


That's one big reason this Alcorn County seat is Mississippi's No. 1 crash site - topping 2002 rankings of city crash rates involving fatalities or serious injuries per 1,000 population. Three other Northeast Mississippi cities - Tupelo, Oxford and Starkville - made the Top 25.


Last year, Corinth had 93 crashes with fatalities or serious injuries, up from 58 in 2001 when it ranked 10th statewide. The city has ranked in the top 10 every year since 1996.


Statistically, the intersection of Harper Road and U.S. 72 is the most dangerous spot in Corinth, but other intersections along U.S. 72 also have claimed victims.


In total, police worked 1,000 crashes with or without injuries in 2002 - 109 of those happened at Harper and U.S. 72, 43 at Cass Street and U.S. 72, 25 at Fulton Drive and U.S. 72, 28 at U.S. 45 and 72 and 24 at Alcorn Drive and U.S. 72: a total of 372 wrecks on U.S. 72 inside the city during 2002.


"Not surprisingly, Highway 72 gives drivers the most trouble," said Barbara Bennett, director of S.N.A.P., a seat belt awareness program.


Most of the fatalities were out-of-town motorists.


"If there were a bypass, it is reasonable to assume that all of these people would be on the bypass, certainly the truck traffic would," she said.





Bypass needed





Enforcement of traffic laws is hindered because police cannot operate radar on the highway. By law, a city must have a minimum population of 15,000 to run radar on a federal highway. Corinth's population is 14,054.


"There may be a greater number of accidents in Jackson," explained Bennett, "but we have a higher percentage of our people involved in accidents."


Chuck Hinds, an accident reconstructionist and training director at the Corinth Police Department, said speed and inattention are the main causes of city accidents.


In particular, varying speed limits pose big problems with traffic on U.S. 72, a major federal highway that runs through the Corinth business district. Most major cities do not have such a dangerous setup, said Corinth Police Chief Ned Cregeen.


Six of the seven people who died in accidents in Corinth last year were killed on U.S. 72. Three of them died at Harper and 72 when a car involved in a 60-mile-long police chase failed to stop at a red light.


Now, Corinth police have three "Stinger" spike strips to try to prevent additional tragedies.





A shortage of funds





Even with deadly statistics pointing to the need, the outlook for a bypass is not good.


"There is no money for it," said Zack Stewart, Mississippi Department of Transportation commissioner for the Northern District.


He observed that most accidents on U.S. 72 occur at intersections with traffic lights. "People are absolutely ignoring the law," he said.


The 72 bypass was not part of Mississippi's 1987 four-lane program because the highway already had four or five lanes through the city, and the Legislature was trying to tie towns into a four-lane system, Stewart said.


"We'd love to bypass Corinth, bypass West Point and complete Highway 4 going across Holly Springs toward Senatobia," he said. "These are some of the things I consider high priority."


It is not likely to happen any time soon, however, because construction funds are designated for other projects.


"The best things that could happen to improve highways the most and make the most efficient use of highway dollars in Mississippi is for the Legislature to get the hell out of the highway business," Stewart said.


"They are designating almost every penny of where our construction money goes. They want to build highways that don't even justify four-lanes."


Even if money were available, he said, it would be eight years from the day plans began to the day motorists could ride on a new highway.


Stewart's analysis is conservative, said MDOT district engineer Paul Swindle. About 14 years ago, MDOT completed a study to determine the feasibility of a bypass and whether it should run north or south of U.S. 72.


The study revealed a positive benefit-to-cost ratio, Swindle said. At that time, the cost was estimated at $60 million-$90 million.


Since then, there has not been a strong push by anyone in the community to proceed with plans for the bypass. "With the amount of money needed and lack of community support, (a bypass) will be a long time off," he said.





State's national ranking





Corinth is not alone in highway tragedies. Traffic deaths are up across the state.


"Our numbers indicate that 885 people died in crashes last year, up 101 deaths over 2001," said Ray Sennett, statistical expert for the Mississippi Office of Highway Safety. "This is a significant and tragic increase in fatalities."


Failure to use seat belts is one of the primary reasons for these deaths, he said. Mississippi and Kentucky have the lowest seat belt use in the nation.


Ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in 2002, Mississippi recorded 30.85 fatalities per 100,000 population, just behind Wyoming with 35.29 traffic deaths per 100,000.


The national average was 14.85 fatalities per 100,000 people.





Crashes top murders





Since Mississippi ranks second nationwide and Corinth ranks tops in the state per fatalities, the Harper Road-U.S. 72 intersection becomes one of the nation's most dangerous intersections, Bennett said.


Almost twice as many people are killed in vehicle crashes than are murdered in Mississippi, Bennett said.


"The truth is that, while 3,037 people lost their lives in a single day as innocent victims of Sept. 11, 2001, over 40,000 Americans die every year in crashes," said Barbara Bennett of S.N.A.P.


Often, alcohol and drugs are involved.


Drunk drivers are reckless criminals who kill nearly 17,000 fellow Americans every year, Bennett said.


"In reality, an impaired driver on a public road is not all that different from an individual who takes a loaded gun into a room full of innocent people and begins shooting in all directions," she said. "Sooner or later an innocent person is going to be killed."








Other cities in top 25





Note: I think this part could go as a sidebar.





TUPELO


In the state crash rate per 1,000 population, Tupelo ranked 15th in 2002 with 130 serious crashes, up from 18th in 2001, when 111 were reported.


Speeding, failure to yield and running red lights are the main causes of accidents in the city, said Tupelo police Capt. Joe Cody.


Tupelo Police Department is cracking down on violators in hopes of lowering these numbers.


"We are really bearing down on traffic enforcement. We are running a lot of radar in residential neighborhoods and complaint areas," Cody said.


Most accidents happen during the weekdays in Tupelo because of an increased number of drivers traveling to and from work, when the number of people in the city swells to about 100,000 because of the work force.


Two of the most dangerous intersections in Tupelo are East Main and Veterans and South Gloster and Eason. Many accidents happen at other intersections along South Gloster Street, Cody said.





OXFORD


Oxford ranked 14th in the state in 2002 with 47 crashes, an improvement over the previous year when 49 crashes placed the city in 8th place statewide.


Oxford Assistant Police Chief Mike Martin said police are trying to stay more visible and vigilant in enforcing the traffic laws.


The most dangerous intersections are on streets that connect with major highways where speeds are higher, Martin said.


Because Oxford is a college town, the number of drivers increases at times as students return to classes, but Martin does not attribute the cause of accidents to young drivers.


Oxford is growing and traffic has increased on streets that were not built to accommodate it, Martin said. The city is working to widen streets in some areas but in older sections of town, that cannot be accomplished, he said.


Inattention is the number one cause of accidents in Oxford, Martin said.


The most dangerous intersection is at the junction of Highway 7 and Highway 6 on the east side of town.


At the west, Jackson Avenue and Highway 6 is also a trouble spot. "When we have an accident there, it is usually a bad one," Martin said.


Any time drivers have to cross at an intersection with a high speed traffic thoroughfare, there is a potential for accidents, he said.





STARKVILLE


Starkville ranked 19th statewide in 2001 but improved slightly in 2002, moving down a slot to number 20 in the number of crashes per 1,000 population decreasing from 70 to 62.


Ruby Shurden, secretary to the police chief, said the most dangerous intersection in Starkville is at Highway 12 and Stark Road.


Several businesses at the busy intersection account for the a high traffic count, she said.