Fatalities Increase on Montana Highways in 2015

Alcohol, speed and lack of seat belt use linked to most crashes, according to Montana Highway Patrol

By Molly Priddy
Traffic moves along U.S. Highway 2 at the intersection of Reserve Drive past two white markers placed by the American Legion.

Fatalities on Montana roadways increased in 2015 by more than 16 percent in 2015 compared to 2014, with a lack of seat belt restraints playing a major role in most of the deaths.

The state saw 224 roadway deaths in 2015, according to Montana Highway Patrol’s statistics. This is a 25-person increase from 2014, when there were 192 fatalities.

MHP District 6, which includes Flathead County, had 23 deaths in 2015, an increase from 2014’s 22, but a significant decrease from the 40 deaths in 2013. District 4, which encompasses Billings, had the highest total, with 41 fatalities.

Both the number of crashes and the number of deaths resulting from the crashes increased in 2015, with 176 crashes in 2014 compared to 204 in 2015. Alcohol was a factor in slightly fewer crashes and deaths in 2015, with 72 crashes and 77 deaths in 2014 compared to 69 crashes and 75 deaths in 2015.

Three of the most important statistics, according to Montana Department of Transportation director and former MHP chief Mike Tooley, are the increases in one-vehicle crashes, speed being a factor, and crashes in which seat belts were not used.

In 2014, there were 124 one-vehicle crashes and 130 deaths, and in 2015 those numbers increased to 145 crashes and 153 deaths. In 2014, speed was a factor in 47 crashes and 49 deaths, increasing to 69 crashes and 77 deaths in 2015.

“You put them all together and it leads to roadway departure,” Tooley said in an interview with the Beacon. “You leave the road and you’re unrestrained, you’re going to be ejected from the vehicle.”

This means 78 percent of the people killed on Montana roadways last year were unrestrained. Tooley said MDT would show up to support a primary offense seat belt bill in the state Legislature – meaning the creation of a law that would make not wearing a seat belt a primary offense, so law enforcement could pull over a vehicle just for that – in order to help realize Vision Zero, a multi-pronged initiative seeking to eliminate deaths and injuries on Montana’s highways.

If such a bill passed, Tooley believes it would result in close to 90 percent compliance across the state, saving at least a dozen lives.

Tooley also said he would support other measures, such as a proposal from state Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, to increase in the seat belt fine from $20 to $100.

“There are going to be crashes that people find themselves involved in that a seat belt might not make a difference, but a huge majority of them, it will,” he said.

In an effort to curb those three factors, Tooley said MDT will be teaming up with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, along with the Department of Revenue, to better reach the 20 percent of Montanans not buckling up.

“Montana spent nearly $40 million in state funds to support folks that had been injured as a result of motor vehicle crashes due to lack of seat belt use, and that comes out of the DPHHS budget,” Tooley said. “And it’s after the fact. We could save not only a lot of money but lives if we could just convince people to buckle up.”

Tooley said the collaboration is likely to result in an edgier campaign aimed at young adults. It won’t be as edgy as the Montana Meth Project, but it will have a similar feel, he said.

He also acknowledged that some people blame roadway conditions for crashes, but said safe driving skills and proper preparation could eliminate those issues.

“Every road is safe if you behave,” Tooley said. “Just follow the laws – they’re there for a reason – and buckle up.”

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