A team of state leaders will meet Tuesday morning in Helena to start tackling what’s being called a crisis on Montana highways.
After another deadly weekend, the fatality count on state roads stands at 33. That compares to just 13 at this time a year ago. The surge has come on the heels of a year in which an increase in traffic deaths of 17 percent was recorded over 2014.
“It’s never good, but this year is turning out to be outstandingly bad,” said Audrey Allums, grant bureau chief in planning for the Montana Department of Transportation.
The new traffic safety executive leadership team will meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday in MDT’s Commission Room. Legislators and leaders from a diverse group of statewide agencies and associations from the governor’s office to the Montana Tavern Association are invited.
The meeting is expected to be the first of several and, while it’s been in the works since last year, it’s coming at a particularly sensitive time.
The death toll rose from six to 22 in February, and another 11 fatalities were reported by the Montana Highway Patrol in the first 13 days of March. They include fatal crashes during the past weekend near Manhattan and Belgrade on Interstate 90 and another north of St. Xavier on a secondary highway.
“We are seeing an early surge in fatalities with every indication that things could get worse,” MDT director Mike Tooley said Monday in a news release. “June, July and August are historically when the highest number of fatalities occur.”
Tooley stated that low gas prices, longer days and good weather mean more people are on the road, which means more opportunities for crashes.
Tuesday's meeting comes as the state prepares to amp up DUI patrols for St. Patrick Day festivities in Butte, Missoula and elsewhere starting Thursday. The Montana Department of Transportation pays for the extra patrols as one of several strategic partnerships to reduce impaired driving in Montana.
MDT has long overseen a collaboration of agencies that hammer out a Comprehensive Highway Safety Plan.
“We have some really good people working on that, but we needed it elevated,” Allums said. “We needed our agencies and our bosses to say, ‘Yep, it is really important to us that we make sure we have all the help we can to work on this.’”
Invitations to Tuesday’s meeting went to the state attorney general, the Office of Indian Affairs, Montana Highway Patrol, the 13th Judicial Court, the Department of Corrections, the Court Administrators’ Office, the Office of the State Public Defender, the Montana League of Cities and Towns, Montana Association of Counties, the Federal Highway Administration, the Office of Public Instruction and the Department of Revenue.
Custer County Undersheriff Pat Roos will be on hand as president of the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
“These fatalities and injuries really do impact every Montanan and every agency in Montana,” Allums said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says crash-related deaths cost Montana $296 million each year. Injuries tax the medical fields, work pools and unemployment rolls. The court system is faced with those who are caught while driving impaired.
Indian reservations have an over-representation of traffic fatalities, Allums said. “We do try to work with tribes to get a message out locally that makes sense to them. It can be a huge issue for their whole system.”
Most of the uptick in fatal crashes has occurred in eastern Montana. Highway patrol districts in Billings and Glendive have seen jumps from two to 10 deaths and from three to nine deaths, respectively, in the first 74 days of 2016 as compared to the same period last year.
There’s no obvious reason, Allumns said, but those wide-open districts tend to have less law enforcement coverage, and traffic victims can be miles from the closest medical help.
In western Montana, the Missoula district has actually seen a drop in highway deaths, from four last year to just one – that of a Missoula Big Sky sophomore on U.S. Highway 93 south of town in early January. Three people have died on roads in the Kalispell district, compared with just one at this point last year.
In 2015, there was one interstate fatality through March 14. This year, there were eight.
While speed and driver impairment are common factors for highway crashes, the most common denominator in fatalities is a lack of seat-belt use, Allums said.
Last Wednesday, a Kalispell man was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected while chasing his wife in another vehicle near Kalispell. On Saturday, a 19-year-old man died and a young woman was airlifted to Billings following the crash of a pickup carrying five people on a fishing expedition on the Crow Indian Reservation.
Both the 26-year-old Belgrade woman killed early Saturday and 36-year-old Bozeman man who died early Sunday were ejected when their vehicles rolled on I-90 west of Bozeman. Neither was wearing a seat belt.
“I’m looking at these things daily, and people are getting ejected out of their cars. People are just not wearing seat belts,” said Allums. “We saw it at the end of last year, too.”