Montana went without a traffic death over the last three days of 2017 and finished the year with 186 fatalities, the lowest count since 1989.
“It’s still a tale of tragedy,” Col. Tom Butler, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol, said Tuesday. “But let’s celebrate the positive.”
On the heels of a 2016 death count of 190, the 186 marks the first time since 1948 and 1949 that state highways saw fewer than 200 deaths in back-to-back years.
It’s also the third time in four years the state finished below that mark. Butler and others cautioned there’s a lesson to learn from the year it didn’t, 2015, when 224 people died.
“Everybody says Montana is one small town with a big Main Street,” Butler said. “I’m fairly certain that each and every one of us in Montana knows someone who was injured in a car crash, and most likely at least knows somebody who knows somebody who was killed in a car crash in 2017.”
Still, he likes the trend.
In its worst year, 1972, the state saw 395 people die on its highways. In 1989, the count bottomed out at 181. The next lowest toll came in 2010 at 188, followed by 192 in 2014.
Better-made automobiles, road engineering and societal shifts away from drinking and driving and toward buckling up are plausible explanations.
“Auto manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping us alive,” said Butler. “If you’re wearing a seat belt, short of a head-on or T-bone collision, you have to work pretty hard to get killed in a car crash.”
A significant portion of crashes are one-car rollovers, he added, and your chances of surviving those improve exponentially if you’re not thrown from the car.
One-vehicle crashes are still the most common kind, accounting for 61 percent of highway deaths in 2017. In 2016 the percentage was 71.5.
Alcohol was suspected as a factor in 60 traffic fatalities in 2017, or fewer than one in three. Just a year ago the ratio was virtually one in two (94 of 190).
Butler said we may never know the reason for the steep decline, even after the numbers are officially crunched and MHP’s report is issued in a couple of months.
What he hopes, he said, is that people are recognizing the danger of driving impaired “but maybe more importantly how easy it is to get a ride with a friend.”
Almost everyone carries a cellphone now, and ride-share apps such as Uber are becoming mainstream tools of travel in at least six of Montana’s metro areas.
“I really think people are starting to recognize how easy it is to call a sober driver before they get behind the wheel,” Butler said.
While 2017 will go down as a year of smoke and fire, and besieged towns throughout the western part of the state suffered the economic consequences, it probably did serve to keep summer revelers and recreationists safe.
“I don’t think you could ever put your thumb on anything, but I think the weather kept a lot of people home, specifically related to the alcohol numbers,” Butler said.
He and Mike Tooley, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, both pointed to the positive if bumpy impact rumble strips have had. MDT is in the midst of a five-year program to install centerline rumble strips at trouble spots on two-lane highways.
“Really, it’s the only thing that has significantly changed on our highways system from a design perspective in the last 30 years,” Butler said.
“I’ve heard from folks who went from complaining about them to actually thanking us for them,” Tooley said.
The numbers aren’t official but here are some of the most significant drops in factors related to highway fatalities on Montana roads from 2016 to 2017, with three-year totals starting with 2015:
• Alcohol suspected, down 36 percent (90-94-60)
• Rural roads, 33 percent (55-46-31)
• Commercial vehicle involved, 30 percent (24-23-16)
• Drugs suspected, 25 percent (76-72-54)
• One-vehicle crashes, 16 percent (153-136-114)
• Seat belts not used, 13 percent (124-97-84)
• Great Falls district, 63 percent (24-19-7)
• Billings district, 26 percent (41-39-29)
• Missoula district, 15 percent (26-27-23)
• Kalispell district, 13 percent (23-30-26)
Factors and areas in which fatalities rose in 2017:
• Out-of-state vehicles involved, up 52 percent (40-25-38)
• Pedestrian involved, 40 percent (15-10-14)
• Motorcycle involved, 29 percent (24-17-22)
• Seat belts used, 21 percent (46-47-57)
• Interstate highways, 14 percent (31-37-43)
• Havre district, up 62 percent (28-13-21)
• Butte district, 45 percent (34-22-32)
• Bozeman district, 44 percent (22-16-23)