The stretch of highway between Rollins and Kalispell is one of the most scenic ribbons of pavement in Montana, unspooled for 20 miles around the western shores of Flathead Lake, surrounded by mountainous countryside and dotted with homes. Two lanes for most of the drive, it passes cherry orchards, wooded campgrounds and communities like Lakeside, which welcomes the constant stream of motorists with a sign that reads, “Slow Down and Enjoy the View.”
Yet for being among the most picturesque drives in Big Sky Country, it’s also one of the most dangerous. There were 1,107 crashes and 69 fatalities on the busy southern section of U.S. Highway 93 between 2007 and 2011, according to the latest data from the Montana Department of Transportation. Though it’s not deemed the deadliest road in the state — the 10-mile section of U.S. 12 west of Lolo owns that tragic distinction — the local stretch of U.S. 93 had the highest number of crashes of any other primary rural corridor in the state.
The crash statistics reflect a gloomy reality that harkens back to the late 1990s when a familiar slogan was, “Pray for me, I drive Highway 93.”
Last year highway fatalities statewide hit a seven-year high of 229 deaths. Including the 55 deaths that have occurred so far this year, there have been 2,310 people who have died in vehicle crashes on Montana roads in the last decade, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
In the Kalispell region, encompassing Flathead, Lake and Lincoln counties, there have been 67 deaths in just the last two years.
MDT has identified all major highways winding throughout the Flathead Valley as among the highest crash severity corridors in the state, including the 16-mile stretch of U.S. 2 from Columbia Falls to West Glacier, which had 426 crashes and 52 deaths between 2007-11.
Tragedies on Montana’s roads are nothing new. Between 1965 and 1974, there were 3,166 fatalities. Between 1975 and 1984, there were 2,957.
But Mike Tooley, director of MDT, wants to change the perception that deadly roads are simply unavoidable in a vast, rural state like Montana.
“That point of view has been very frustrating to me, that ‘This is just part of living in Montana,’” Tooley said. “If you back out of that way of thinking and focus on your family, what’s the number of acceptable traffic fatalities within your family? What number would be acceptable? There’s not a number that is acceptable. We need to be steering toward zero.”
At an event in Missoula in early May, Tooley announced the state’s broad new initiative called “Vision Zero” aimed at reducing deaths and injuries on the roads. Tooley unveiled the multi-pronged approach with a presentation of a metal sculpture made out of mangled vehicles that were involved in wrecks.
The message was simple yet stark.
“One life lost to a crash is one too many,” Tooley said.
MDT has established four emphasizes within Vision Zero that are being bolstered: education, enforcement, engineering and emergency medical response.
A new public information campaign will focus on the busiest and deadliest travel periods — May through October — when 61 percent of all roadway fatalities have occurred in the last 10 years. Improved signage will be spread across the state, and state resources will ramp up efforts with local law enforcement for DUI task forces and increase safety programs.
One of the key messages will center on seat belts, which still remain neglected by many drivers. In the last decade, 1,293 people have died who were not wearing a seat belt or wearing one improperly.
Tooley said he would once again be attending this winter’s Legislature to speak out in favor of a primary seat belt law, which Montana lacks. Seat belts are required, but officers cannot enforce the law unless they pull over a driver for another offense, like speeding.
Tooley and others within the MDT and Highway Patrol have supported a primary seat belt law and have spoken in favor of it during previous sessions. The Legislature has shot down the proposal each time.
Earlier this year, a national nonprofit group called Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety gave Montana a failing grade in its annual report on highway safety laws. The group criticized Montana for not having a front and rear primary seat belt law, all-rider motorcycle helmet law, booster seat law, an ignition interlock law and an all-driver text messaging restriction.
Tooley said other states have seen a 10 percent increase in compliance rates after a primary seat belt law went into effect. Montana currently has a 77.5 percent compliance rate.
“If you drove that up to 90 percent, you would make a major difference in how many people are dying,” Tooley said.
He said cities are taking the lead on enacting laws that prohibit cell-phone use while driving, and he supports those efforts, although he doesn’t anticipate a statewide law will draw enough support to pass the Legislature.
“We’ll support those efforts, although I sense they won’t pass. But we will support them because it’s the right thing to do and would make a big difference,” he said.
The Vision Zero information campaign will also focus on 18- to 25-year-olds, the age group with the highest fatality crash rate.
Alcohol-related crashes — an age-old problem in Montana – have decreased each year since 2009, but drugged driving, involving motorists using prescription medications or recreational drugs, has become a problem, Tooley said.
The state’s Highway Patrol has ramped up training and resources for officers who might encounter drugged drivers, and those efforts will be expanded even further, Tooley said.
Montana has more public road miles than there are interstate miles in the entire country, but many of those stretches of pavement are old or overused. Part of Vision Zero will be to identify the sections that are priorities for maintenance, Tooley said.
“That’s a concern. We have a lot of needs we can’t get to, yet we have seen increased traffic in areas like Kalispell and Missoula,” he said. “We’ve got roads that haven’t been improved since they were constructed.”
Another element of Vision Zero is directed toward emergency medical response, and ensuring communities have proper support for those vital resources.
Tooley said the reception of Vision Zero has been good so far. Even though the likelihood of achieving the stated moniker is unlikely, he remains devoted to its mission.
“People are excited for a vision that actually says highway fatalities are not acceptable in our state and we’re going to do our best to prevent every single one of them,” Tooley said.