Traffic Deaths in Montana on Pace to Surpass 2014 Total

Flathead County ranks among the highest in Montana in traffic deaths, many of which due to alcohol or drug impairment

By Tristan Scott

Montana motorists may have noticed more law enforcement over the Labor Day holiday weekend as the Montana Highway Patrol ramped up its vigilance for drunken driving.

The 20-day, high-visibility campaign began last month and continued through Sept. 7 with DUI checkpoints, as well as increased messaging about drunken driving.

Officials say drunken driving accounted for 38 percent of statewide crash fatalities over Labor Day weekend in 2013.

It’s been a bad year for driving deaths in general across the state, outpacing last year’s total at the same time of year. There were 192 fatalities in 2014. There have been 145 fatalities on Montana highways in 2015 compared to 130 fatalities for this same time in 2014.

After dropping below 200 in 2014 for just the second time in 18 years, the highway fatality toll for 2015 is climbing, and alcohol-impaired driving plays a large factor.

But law enforcement and the criminal justice system have a new tool on their collective tool belt to help curb DUIs and impaired driving.

A law that emerged during the 2015 Legislature doubles the minimum fines for driving under the influence and went into effect upon Gov. Steve Bullock’s signature May 5.

Pushed by Attorney General Tim Fox and the Department of Justice, and sponsored by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, the legislation sets minimum fines at $600 for a first DUI offense, $1,200 for a second and $2,500 for a third conviction. Double each of those if a child 15 or younger is in the vehicle.

For the past decade, Montana lost an average of 227 lives per year on public streets and roads, according to the Montana Department of Transportation. In Flathead County, 184 people died on roads between 2004 and 2013.

Compounding those tragedies is the fact that many deaths could have been prevented. Forty-five fatal crashes this year involved at least one driver impaired by alcohol or other drugs, according to preliminary Montana Highway Patrol reports.

Final lab data shows that more than half of fatal Montana crashes have involved impaired drivers over the past decade.

Regier’s bill has prompted MDT to outline goals to reduce the five-year average for fatalities involving alcohol-impaired drivers by 2015. According to the Traffic Highway Safety Plan for 2016, that average has actually increased in recent years. MDT hopes to fight the trend by maintaining the current average through 2020.

Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley stressed the importance of wearing a seatbelt, and not driving drunk.

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