News & Features

An Intractable Problem

Flathead's Highway Fatality Rate

A recent spate of traffic deaths in the Flathead is once again calling attention to the safety of the region’s roads. A Somers teenager was hit by a car and killed July 10 while trying to bicycle across U.S. 93 at the intersection of Montana 82, spurring an outpouring of public grief and demands by the community that the state Department of Transportation take steps to improve that intersection’s safety.

As of this writing, the most recent traffic death in the Flathead occurred Tuesday evening when a 23-year-old Bigfork woman collided head-on with another vehicle on U.S. Highway 82, west of the the Sportsman Bridge. The accident was the 15th fatal accident in Flathead County this year and marks the 34th in the Montana Highway Patrol’s District 6, a four-county region composed of Lincoln, Sanders, Lake and Flathead.

A June U.S. Department of Transportation study found that Montana’s highways are the deadliest in the nation, with 2.3 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. And Flathead’s District 6 is consistently the deadliest in the state, leading Montana year after year in its fatality counts. This year appears no different: As of July 23, Flathead’s District 6 led the state with 32 highway deaths, with Missoula’s district coming in at 26 deaths, Great Falls’s district at 22 deaths, Bozeman’s district at 16 deaths and Billings’s district at 15 deaths.

Flathead’s steadily high traffic accident numbers pose an intractable problem for the valley’s law enforcement officers and state Transportation Department officials struggling to find solutions – and as growth continues, it’s a problem that doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

“It’s crazy, it really is,” said Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan. “I wish I had more answers as to why we’re so high but I don’t.” He chalks some of it up to Flathead’s growth and the natural lag time that occurs as government services try to keep up, including improving infrastructure to accommodate increased traffic. In coming years, Meehan foresees the public exerting greater pressure to lower speed limits, and establish more traffic lights and four-way stops across the Flathead.

Meehan, like everyone interviewed, described what he saw as a cultural aversion in Montana to using seatbelts – and a reluctance to strengthen enforcement of seatbelt use.

Montana Highway Patrol District 6 Capt. Clancy King said a failed bill in the 2007 state Legislature would have been vital in reducing traffic fatalities by making the enforcement of seatbelt usage a primary law.

“Our Legislature had a chance to enact a seatbelt law and they chose not to,” King said, characterizing the Flathead lawmakers who opposed it as “people from the fatality capital of Montana and they’re voting against it.”

King’s primary explanation for Flathead’s high fatality rate was the absence of interstates. Across the state, the number of accidents on primary roads dwarfs the number of accidents on interstates – where opposing lanes of traffic are separated, keeping a one-vehicle crash from becoming a multiple-vehicle crash.

“I don’t think that the people in the Flathead live on the edge or take more risks, they just don’t have the opportunity to get on the interstate and travel,” King said. Also, rising fuel costs are motivating more people to ride motorcycles, he added, of which crashes are on the rise.

Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch agrees something needs to be done about the U.S. 93-Montana 82 intersection, but more study is necessary to determine the next step.

Lynch is currently touring the state holding forums in the communities surrounding Montana’s 16 “high crash corridors” to discuss traffic patterns, accident-prone times of day, and ways to increase safety. Lynch’s Flathead forum, to discuss U.S. 93 and Montana 40, takes place Aug. 21.

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