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Montana traffic fatalities on the rise

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MISSION VALLEY — According to the Montana Highway Patrol’s annual report for 2011, four people died as a result of vehicle accidents in Lake County last year. As this was the lowest number of deaths in the county since 1958, the low figures were a cause for celebration. 

However, recent data from the Montana Department of Transportation and the MHP shows an increase in overall fatalities and alcohol-related fatalities this year. 

The most current data from the Montana Highway Patrol has crash statistics running from Jan. 1 to Dec. 3. The figures are less than encouraging. 

In District 6, the MHP district containing Flathead, Lincoln and Lake Counties, a total of 21 people have died on the roads so far in 2012. At this time last year, that number was 18. The most dangerous roads seem to be primary roads with a death toll of 12, followed by rural roads with six deaths, secondary roads with two deaths and urban roads with one death.

The only type of road with zero deaths was the interstate. A total of 196 people have died on Montana roads so far in 2012. 

According to a press release from the Montana Department of Transportation, 36 alcohol-related fatalities have occurred so far in 2012. This is 13 more than occurred in the same timeframe last year. 

When averaged over the last five years, the data shows an average of one alcohol-related fatality every three days on Montana roads. These deaths account for about 44 percent of all Montana’s traffic fatalities. This means Montana is one of the top five worst states in America for alcohol-related fatalities. 

“No one wants to be responsible for injuring or killing another person, but when you get behind the wheel impaired, you have a deadly weapon in your hands,” Montana Department of Transportation Director Tim Reardon said in the press release. “We need to continue to shift the mentality of Montana drivers to know that drinking and driving can kill you and anyone you encounter on the road. Montanans are fed up with impaired drivers, and law enforcement is taking a firm approach against these drivers.” 

Kalispell District 6 Sgt. Roy Christensen said the number of DUI citations is also on the rise, but that the majority of fatalities he has seen are a result of unrestrained drivers traveling at high speed and rolling the vehicle. Having alcohol in a driver’s system increases the chances for these three factors to align. 

Christensen believes 75 to 85 percent of fatalities involve a person in the vehicle not wearing their seatbelt. 

“That’s a pretty significant number if you think about it,” he said. “As far as what is causing the increased drinking, driving and crashing statistics, I can’t speculate on that. It could be a lot of stuff, and I have no data to back it up, so I can’t even speculate.”

Not only is the number of crashes on the rise, but the lethality as well. In 2011, the MHP reports 168 crashes with a total of 187 deaths for a crash-to-death ratio of 89 percent. This year, MHP is reporting 183 crashes and 196 deaths for a crash-to-death ratio of 93 percent — a 4-percent increase from last year. 

“About the only thing we can do in law enforcement is be out on the roadways patrolling, identifying aggressive drivers, making those kinds of stops and telling these people that they need to follow the rules of the road,” Christensen said. 

He added that his troopers’ primary goals are to get out on the road and identify unsafe drivers, stop them and educate them as to why they were stopped. 

“Our biggest job is to do that — get out there and educate the public,” Christensen said. 

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