Dangerous highway: The deaths and injuries on a stretch of Highway 34

HENDERSON & WARREN COUNTIES, Ill (KWQC)- Michele Schnicker still remembers February 11th, 2013.

“I am actually a faithful radio listener,” she said recalling her morning that day. “I had the radio on and heard about the backed up traffic on Highway 34.”
Her husband, Doug Schnicker, drove a bread truck for Sara Lee at the time.

“I kind of paused for a minute as I was getting ready,” she said. “I thought, ‘I should call Doug and let him know.’ Then I thought, ‘No, everything should be fine.’”

She would later find out that Doug was in that accident that backed up traffic. On a corner of Higway 34 between Burlington and Biggsville, a semi-truck crossed the center line and hit Doug’s bread truck head on. Doug was killed at the age of 53.

“It was very hard to believe,” Schnicker said, nearly tearing up four years later. “Until they actually showed me his wallet did I truthfully believe it.”

In the 27 mile stretch of Highway 34 from Monmouth to Burlington dozens have died, hundreds have been injured.

Between 2004 and 2014: 676 crashes were reported on that stretch of road, 249 people were injured and 9, including Doug, were killed.

Backing up ten years before that, from 1995 to 2005: 773 crashes happened, 353 people were injured and 12 people were killed.

In some spots of the road, crosses and memorials sit in the ditches and next to cornfields, hoping to show that these people killed are more than just numbers.

“Its white knuckle,” Schnicker said. “You just pray every time you get on that small stretch of highway.”

In 1990 a group recognized the danger and formed The Highway 34 Coalition which supports a four lane highway from Burlington to Monmouth.

“Hearing those numbers should be something that sticks out to our government,” said Annamae Brown, a sophomore at West Central High School.

Brown and other classmates are part of student group, called 34 Voices, which teamed up with the 34 Coalition to pressure lawmakers and show a need for the four lane stretch of highway.

West Central High School used to sit right on Highway 34 until a four lane bypass was finished in December 2015.

“We need people to understand that this is no longer a want,” Brown said. “This is a need.”

The coalition says Illinois Department of Transportation has held public meetings and the department is looking at three different routes to make the section between Biggsville and Burlington four lanes.

“Potentially with everyone moving and progressing, by late fall we should be able to have another meeting to have that narrowed down,” Schnicker said.

An IDOT spokesperson says the department continues to look at funding to improve the road, and added a statement.

We successfully expanded a portion of U.S. 34 to four lanes with the completion of the Biggsville Bypass in December 2015 and continue to look at the need and funding availability to improve additional sections. We recently started a project (May 2) to add shoulders to 4.5 miles of U.S. 34 near the Biggsville Bypass to address deteriorating pavement. As always, we look forward to working closely with all local stakeholders on improvements that enhance safety and promote quality of life in the region.

Schnicker and the coalition say the numbers of injuries, crashes and fatalities speak for themselves.

“Those are people’s lives that have been in danger,” Schnicker said. “Yet here we are still sitting here losing people.”

They hope that by being the “squeaky wheel” as they put it, they can create change.

“Something positive can come out of something horrible,” Schnicker added. “If we can get that road done and save a life, it’s worth it.”