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Iowa traffic deaths near historic lows

DES MOINES — Iowa is on the road to fewer traffic fatalities this year as the coronavirus pandemic slows travel and reduces crashes — which could result in the lowest highway death toll in nearly a century.

As of Friday, 130 people this year have died in crashes on Iowa roads, a level down 35 from the same period last year. For all of 2019, the state recorded 336 traffic fatalities.

Dennis Kleen, the state Department of Transportation official who tracks data on highway-related deaths, said March, April, May and June saw lower death tolls “when things were shut down and people were sitting at home.”

But traffic patterns in July are starting to return to normal as the state reopens since Gov. Kim Reynolds eased COVID-19 restrictions.

“There’s a lot less traffic,” noted Kleen, who said Iowa’s highway fatality count at this point is hovering around historic lows based on data dating to 1925 — the only year the annual toll dipped below 300, with 261 deaths that year.

“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen,” Kleen said, but added, “This might be the year that we could get under 300.”

By contrast, Iowa’s peak year for traffic deaths was 912 in 1970.

Vehicle counts on Iowa roads, streets and interstates fell by 44 percent in mid-April compared with the previous year as much of the state shut down in the pandemic. They have slowly rebuilt since then to near normal but are still lower, said Stuart Anderson, director of Iowa DOT’s planning, programming and modal division. Truck traffic has fluctuated as well but generally has stayed steady to slightly higher than previous years, according to Iowa DOT statistics.

The number of total vehicle crashes per month was down strikingly since COVID-19 first was confirmed March 8 in Iowa.

State records show 2,954 crashes took place in March, compared with 4,031 the year before. By April, the gap was 1,667 lower and 1,563 in May. But June’s 3,790 collisions was down less — by 864 — compared with June 2019’s total of 4,604.

Jeff Von Brown, team leader of modeling, forecasting and telemetrics in the Iowa DOT’s systems planning bureau, said “we’re definitely seeing a reduction in traffic” since mid-March compared to last year, with a 60 percent drop during the Easter Sunday season due in part to the combination of inclement weather and COVID-19 concerns.

“Since that low point, we’ve slowly crept our way back up,” he said. “We’ve been sitting at about 15 to 20 percent fewer vehicles on the road for the past four or five weeks or so. There’s a lasting reduction. When will we get back to normal and maybe even positive? It’s hard to tell. We’re still in a very unclear situation with the pandemic itself, as well as life has changed for a lot of people — working from home and how people feel comfortable about going out.”

COVID-19 effects have played havoc with transportation financial norms. State revenue from fuel taxes and vehicle sales has dropped, causing uncertainty for some highway construction plans. The reduced vehicle traffic and safer roads have resulted in some temporary insurance rate rollbacks. But the travel industry is feeling the effects of fewer hotels bookings and car rentals in the midst of what usually is the height of summer vacation and travel season.

Many Americans are “still taking a wait-and-see attitude” when it comes to travel, said Mark Peterson, AAA spokesman for the Iowa-Minnesota area.

Many of those plans are being done cautiously and “more spur of the moment,” according to the association that forecast Americans would take 700 million trips from July through September based upon economic indicators and state re-openings that are subject to change.

“That’s off about 15 percent,” Peterson noted. “That’s the first decline in summer travel since 2009.”

That comes at a time gas prices are favorable for consumers — averaging $2.20 a gallon nationally and $2.10 in Iowa, which was about 50 cents per gallon lower than last year, he noted.

Car trips remain the favorite mode of transportation, Peterson said, primarily due to flexibility in scheduling and the ability to social distance.

The less-congested roadways, however, have brought with them an increase in the number of people driving in excess of 100 mph. A 113 percent spike in the number of speed citations for 100 mph or greater and a 70 percent jump in citations for motorists traveling in excess of 25 mph over the limit prompted Iowa State Patrol officials to join their counterparts from Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas in launch an enforcement crackdown.

Along with the good news that diesel tax receipts remain strong with the steady truck traffic, there is bad news — heavy vehicles take a toll on the condition of the highway system at a time overall transportation funds are down.

Anderson has indicated that short-term revisions in the state’s highway construction plans could be required.

Revenue flowing into the state’s road use tax fund is projected to decline by $100 million through October because the coronavirus has disrupted Iowans’ travel and vehicle purchasing patterns.

Iowa DOT officials say significant across-the-board construction cost increases have forced them to revise many project estimates and limit the funding available for new projects, while a few projects have been delayed by one year from the schedule identified in a previous five-year plan.

8 Over 80: Barbara Corson's 'unplanned' career leads to lifetime of service

First in a series on this year’s Courier 8 Over 80 honorees.

WATERLOO — Barbara Corson has fashioned her passion for history and the arts into volunteerism that has helped enrich the community.

Corson, Waterloo’s first female high school school principal, was nominated for the Courier’s 8 over 80 because of her work with the Grout Museum District, Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, Waterloo Cedar Falls Symphony and the YWCA, to name a few.

“She is extremely effective and moves mountains in her effort to advance the causes she holds dear,” said Luanne Puhl, who recommended Corson for the award.

“I try to give back. My dad was very big on that you’ve had a good life and you have to give back,” said Corson, 83, of Waterloo.

Corson grew up in Waterloo. Her father ran an appliance store on West Fourth Street, and her mother was a homemaker who helped out at the family business.

After graduating from high school, she went to Rockford College in Rockford, Ill., married Harold Corson, a Rockford native, and began raising two children after earning her degree.

She worked as a substitute teacher for Waterloo schools as a side job and took the leap into full-time teaching in 1963 after a seventh-grade English teacher she was filling in for didn’t return shortly before a Thanksgiving break.

“My whole career has been somewhat unplanned,” Corson said.

School administrators asked her to enter a contract to pick up where the outgoing teacher left off. She signed and then fretted about how to break the news to her husband.

She told him on Thanksgiving weekend, after all of the hectic family activities were winding down.

“He said ‘Oh, thank God,’” Corson recalls.

As it turned out, Harold, a biochemist at then-Allen Hospital, had accepted a job with Abbott Laboratories and had been worrying about how to tell her about his own career change.

In the years that followed, Corson was promoted into administrative positions —- head of the English department, assistant principal and principal at West High, her alma mater —- and earned advanced degrees. She retired in 1996.

The couple’s interest in history (he died in January 2019) and preserving the past shows through in a number of ways. They owned an antique mall in McGregor, located in a historic Goedert Building with an ornamental pressed-metal facade that was manufactured in a Mesker family foundry in St. Louis and floated up the Mississippi River.

A 2017 tornado destroyed the antique store, but Corson still owns a historic house in McGregor that was built in 1886.

Closer to home, Corson served as chair on the board for local historic homes, which transitioned into a spot on the Grout Museum District’s board of directors. She chaired the district’s exhibits committee and planned for the artifacts for the Sullivan Brothers Military Museum.

When the Grout’s planetarium equipment began to falter, she stepped in with a significant donation for replacement parts, Puhl said.

In retirement, Corson has been traveling the world, extensively in South America, where she has visited Machu Picchu. She has also been to the Great Wall of China as well as Egypt, where she saw the oldest piece of papyrus with writing on display in a museum.

She said she loves traveling and studying the places where she goes.

‘I try to give back. My dad was very big on that you’ve had a good life and you have to give back.’ — Barbara Corson

In this Jan. 4, 2012, photo, civil rights activist C.T. Vivian poses in his home in Atlanta. 

Nate Vance putts on the green of the second hole during the Waterloo Open at Irv Warren Memorial Golf Course on Sunday morning. The Marshalltown native secured a championship during his Waterloo Open debut.

AP featured
Rights activists, political leaders mourn Rep. John Lewis

Rights activists, politicians from both parties and many other people touched by the legacy of John Lewis mourned the congressman and pillar of the civil rights movement Saturday, lauding the strength, courage and kindness of a man whose lifelong struggle against racial discrimination took him from a bridge in Selma to the nation’s Capitol.

“As a young man marching for equality in Selma, Alabama, John answered brutal violence with courageous hope,” said former President George W. Bush. “And throughout his career as a civil rights leader and public servant, he worked to make our country a more perfect union.”

Former President Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, recalled being sworn in for his first term: “I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”

Lewis died Friday, several months after the Georgia Democrat announced that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Lewis, 80, often recalled his upbringing in the segregated South, including how he was denied a library card because the library was for “whites only.” He was determined to destroy segregation, joining with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to help plan the 1963 March on Washington.

Two years later, Lewis helped lead the “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march intended to go from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. White police, state troopers and thugs blocked their way on the bridge out of Selma, attacking the peaceful marchers with clubs, bullwhips and tear gas. Lewis suffered a cracked skull.

He went on to make a career in politics, representing Atlanta in Congress for more than 30 years, and all the while imploring people to press for justice — to make what he came to call “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms described that call as “a generational rallying cry for nonviolent activism in the pursuit of social justice and human rights.”

“He fought harder and longer than anyone in our nation’s continuing battle for civil rights and equal justice,” the NAACP said in a written statement.

He also scrapped with President Donald Trump, refusing to attend his inauguration and calling him a racist. Trump ordered flags flown at half-staff to honor Lewis — as required by law for sitting members of Congress. More than 14 hours after his death, following an array of unrelated retweets and a golf outing, he offered condolences.

“Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing,” Trump tweeted. “Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family.”

Those mourning included baseball legend Hank Aaron, who said he and Lewis “connected to the roots.”

“By that I mean we were born and grew up in the highly racist and segregated south, in the state of Alabama,” Aaron said. “He committed his life to the struggle for justice and equality for all people.”

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California noted that Lewis stood not just for an end to racial discrimination, but for gay rights, such as when he opposed the federal ban on gay marriage, and for immigrant rights, such as an end to family-separation policies.

There was no immediate announcement on funeral plans, which could be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In an order, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said flags on state buildings would be lowered through sunset on the day of Lewis’ interment.

Kemp praised Lewis as “a Civil Rights hero, freedom fighter, devoted public servant, and beloved Georgian who changed our world in a profound way.”

State law says Kemp must schedule a special election to fill the current term of Lewis, who was first elected to represent Georgia’s majority Black 5th District in 1986, said Georgia Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs. A vote would have to be held within 30 days.

Separately, Democrats can appoint a replacement candidate to fill Lewis’ slot on the November ballot since he already had won the nomination for another term, said Fuchs.

In Congress, Democratic senators signaled a fight over Lewis’ legacy after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement lionizing him.

“I will never forget joining hands with John as members of Congress sang We Shall Overcome at a 2008 ceremony honoring his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” McConnell wrote. “It could not have been more humbling to consider what he had suffered and sacrificed so those words could be sung in that place.”

The Democrats noted that McConnell had refused to bring the 2020 Voting Rights Act, passed by the House, up for a vote before the Republican-controlled Senate. The measure would restore federal oversight of state elections, after the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated much of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013.

Harris, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others urged McConnell to allow a vote, and several said it should be given a new name: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.