Transportation Department Tackles Rural Fatality Rates

By Beacon Staff

A highway dedication last week near Glacier Park International Airport called to memory a tragic anomaly in which three Montana Highway Patrol troopers died on Flathead County roads in an 18-month span. Before that span, between October of 2007 and March of 2009, only four troopers in state history had died in the line of duty.

Two stretches of U.S. Highway 2 were dedicated to David Graham and Evan Schneider, and one stretch of U.S. Highway 93 near Somers was dedicated to Mike Haynes. But the ceremony also served as a reminder of something that’s much more of a reality than an anomaly: Rural roads still account for the majority of highway fatalities in the United States, despite the fact that more traffic and more crashes are found on urban roadways.

A report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that, while overall highway fatalities continued to decline in 2008, more than half of highway deaths occur on rural roads even as states seek to remedy this trend. In 2008, according to the report, 56 percent of fatalities were on rural roads.

Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, cautions against reading too much into national statistics, as “all statistics are local.” But Lynch acknowledges a high rate of deaths on the state’s highway system. There are several contributing factors, including the inherent long distances and high speeds of highway travel in Montana.

Of the nearly 12 billion miles traveled annually on Montana’s roads, 80 percent of those miles are driven on the state highway system. In total, about 12,000 of the state’s 70,000 publicly traveled roadway miles are highway, Lynch said.

“If we get into an accident here, we’re in a high-speed accident,” Lynch, who is also the Governor’s Representative for Highway Traffic Safety, said.

With the vast geography of Montana, medical response time is a major issue. In urban areas, Lynch said, response time for an emergency medical rescue to a crash site averages about 15 minutes. In Montana, it’s 80 minutes, though in remote places it can take several hours, he said. There are only four helicopter air rescue programs statewide, including Kalispell’s ALERT air ambulance, Lynch said.

“(ALERT) has saved a tremendous amount of lives,” Lynch said.

There is also a relatively small number of Montana Highway Patrol troopers to cover the state’s 146,000 square miles. Lynch said there are between 35 and 40 troopers on patrol at any given time and fewer than 300 altogether. In Massachusetts, a state of fewer than 11,000 square miles, there are about 2,000 troopers, Lynch said.

Lynch said Montana has a “fantastic EMS response system,” but it’s not always possible to cover the large distances from hospitals to crash sites in the time necessary to save a life or prevent permanent injury. Thirty minutes is the rough threshold for avoiding lasting injuries after a life-threatening crash, Lynch said, and getting to the hospital in 60 minutes is the time frame associated with preventing death.

But Lynch emphasizes that long response times can often be nullified by a simple habit: buckling up. In 70 percent of Montana’s highway fatalities, Lynch said, the victim wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

“The safest place to be in an automobile accident is inside the car,” Lynch said. “Seat belts keep you there.”

The Montana Department of Transportation has ramped up efforts to educate the public about highway safety and cooperate with local communities to improve safety, including extensive work with the state’s seven American Indian reservations. Educational programs that display actual cars from severe crashes across the state are targeted at Montana’s youths – 16-34 is considered the high-risk age group, Lynch said.

Through a program called Safe On All Roads (SOAR), the MDT works with advocates on American Indian reservations to develop safety plans that correlate with the state’s own plan. Reservations are “over-representative in fatalities,” Lynch said, though he’s not sure of the exact reasons. But last year fatalities were down by 19 from 2007.

The state has also identified a number of high-crash corridors. In those areas, officials are increasing enforcement and safety education, as well as looking at possible infrastructure needs.

In all of the MDT’s programs, the fundamental message is the same: The most important key to highway safety is wearing seat belts. Most accidents are behavior related, such as driving too fast, drunk driving, falling asleep or inattentiveness. Each year, Montana is near the top of the national list for alcohol-related traffic fatalities per miles traveled. But buckling up is a behavioral preventive measure that Lynch believes is simple enough that there shouldn’t be any driver or passenger not doing it.

Americans are increasingly heeding advice to wear seat belts. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), seat belt use has reached an all-time high of 84 percent nationwide. Partly due to the expanded seat belt use, fatalities have been in decline in recent years, including a record low for the first half of 2009, the NHTSA reports. Montana’s fatalities have also been trending downward – there were 47 fewer road deaths in 2008 than 2007.

Lynch will continue to advocate for a primary seat belt law in Montana, which would allow law enforcement officers to ticket a driver for not wearing a seat belt, without any other traffic offense taking place. Currently 30 states have primary seat belt laws.

“There’s no goal line in highway safety,” Lynch said. “Even with zero fatalities, work is just beginning.”

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