The number of fatalities on Montana’s roadways has more than doubled in the first three months of 2016 when compared to last year, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.
According to MDT statistics, 33 people have been killed in car accidents since Jan. 1, compared to 13 during the same period in 2015. MDT officials have called the sudden spike in road deaths a “crisis” and last week state and local leaders gathered in Helena to discuss the problem.
“Traffic fatalities don’t have to happen,” said MDT Director Mike Tooley. “It’s almost accepted as a natural cause of death but it’s not a natural cause of death, it is preventable.”
Tooley said two factors are responsible for the increase in highway fatalities this year: good weather and low gas prices. Savings at the pump has put more drivers on the highway and, while snowy and icy roads are among the most dangerous, people are a lot more cautious when driving on them. A mild winter has meant drivers are less cautious about road conditions and driving faster.
In Flathead County, three people have been killed in traffic accidents so far in 2016, compared to one this time last year.
Tooley said not wearing a seatbelt is one of the leading contributors to death in an auto accident. In 2015, 224 people were killed in automobile accidents and 68 percent of them were not wearing seatbelts. According to Sheriff Chuck Curry, at least two of the road fatalities in Flathead County this year were the result of the victim not wearing their seatbelt.
“Wearing a seatbelt won’t always prevent death, but it increase your chances of surviving by a lot,” Curry said.
Montana frequently ranks high among states in road deaths per capita. Because of that, MDT has been pushing a program called Vision Zero. The goal of the program is to educate drivers and enforce the laws in an effort to reduce road deaths in Montana. Tooley said MDT is looking at ways to spread the message of safe driving across the state, especially to young people.
Vision Zero and the spike in highway deaths was the topic of the meeting in Helena on March 15. Officials from Gov. Steve Bullock’s office, the Attorney General’s office, Office of Indian Affairs, Montana Highway Patrol, Montana League of Cities and Towns, the Montana Association of Counties, Federal Highway Administration and the Montana Tavern Association attended the meeting.
“We’re working hard at the state and local level to reverse this trend but frankly the only ones who can reduce this trend are the ones behind the wheel,” Tooley said.
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