Another nine people died in fatal car accidents on Montana highways last week, including a 19-year-old from Bigfork.
Tragedies continue to plague the state’s roads at a deadly rate that is twice the national average and on pace to reach its highest toll in six years.
So far this year, 201 people have died in vehicle accidents, 16 more than this time last year, according to Montana Highway Patrol statistics. With two months of winter weather still to come, the death toll is on track to approach the highest level since 2007, when there were 276 fatalities.
This corner of the state has been the deadliest. There were 37 fatalities in Flathead, Lake and Lincoln counties combined between Jan. 1 and Nov. 4. This time last year, there were 19 deaths in this region, and in 2011, there were 18.
“It’s tragic,” said Mike Tooley, director of the state’s Department of Transportation. “We need to remember that every fatality is a person. We shouldn’t accept even one.”
Last weekend the community grieved over the latest local victim, 19-year-old Matthew James Edwards.
Edwards, a 2012 graduate of Bigfork High School, was driving home from a successful hunting trip on the morning of Oct. 28 when he veered off Montana Highway 83 near Condon, overcorrected and rolled his pickup, according to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
Edwards was ejected from the vehicle and died on the scene, according to officials. He was driving alone.
Four days later, a four-car accident on U.S. Highway 93 south of Somers sent three people to the hospital by ambulance. They survived but were treated for serious injuries.
In a state with more public road miles than there are interstate miles in the entire country, highway fatalities have remained a persistent calamity. Driver deaths have now reached 2,276 since 2004.
The rate of fatalities remains twice the national average. There were 10.3 highway fatalities per 100,000 Americans in 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Montana, the rate hit 21.12 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2011.
State officials are continuing to tackle a complex situation without an easy fix in sight.
One of the age-old problems – drunken driving – is actually on a downward trend, according to statistics. This year, 39 deaths have resulted from crashes involving alcohol. Last year there were 51 alcohol-related deaths through Nov. 4.
Yet, according to the highway patrol, the problem has morphed into drugged driving.
“The big difference that we’re seeing now is impaired driving with drugs and alcohol in conjunction,” said Jim Sanderson, a regional supervisor with the Montana Highway Patrol.
Drivers are increasingly getting behind the wheel after ingesting prescription medication or narcotics like marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine, Sanderson said.
“I think (drinking and driving is) still a deep-rooted issue in our culture that I think is slowly changing, but it’s being replaced by other things,” Tooley said.
During a recent three-day stretch in the Flathead Valley, officers pulled over 300 vehicles and, from those, made 16 drug arrests.
Another topic lingering over Montana’s roads is the lack of a primary seat belt law. Seat belts are required in Montana, but officers cannot enforce the law unless they pull over a driver for another offense, like speeding.
Thirty-three states have primary seat belt laws for front-seat occupants. In 16 of these states, rear-seat occupants are also required to wear seat belts.
Primary seat belt laws are rare in Western rural states. Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas are among the 16 states without a primary law. The maximum fine for a first offense in Montana is $20, which is among the lowest in the nation, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Tooley and others within the MDT and Highway Patrol remain in support of a primary seat belt law and have spoken in favor of it during recent legislative sessions. The Legislature has shot down the proposal each session.
“We just keep falling short, but the reason I keep going back to the Legislature is because I take this personally,” Tooley said. “We could save up to 18 lives if we just had a primary law.”
Tooley would also like to see a better law for distracted driving, too. There is currently a statewide careless driving law, but similar to the secondary seat belt law, it is difficult for officers to enforce.
Laws restricting hand-held cell phone use are the latest trend across the U.S., with 12 states enacting primary enforcement measures. Currently 41 states have banned text messaging for all drivers and all but four have made texting primary offenses. Montana and South Carolina are the only states without any form of statewide distracted driving laws.
Tooley said cell phones are a leading cause of distracted driving, but not the lone culprit.
“Really there are a number of distracted situations we need to be aware of,” he said. “If we start with cell phones, that at least brings attention to other distractions.”
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