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Montanans may or may not be the worst drivers in the nation, but as 2017 slides into history we’re zeroing in on a highway milestone.

For the first time since 1949, the state will almost surely record fewer than 200 traffic fatalities for a second consecutive year.

It’s small consolation for the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traffic tragedies over the past 24 months. But the 2017 death toll on Thursday stood at “only” 185. Last year’s final count was 190, a precipitous drop from 224 in 2015.

Montana’s decreasing numbers are bucking a national trend, said Mike Tooley, director of the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT).

“Nationwide, you’re looking at a 9 percent increase in fatalities, so we’re going the opposite direction from most of the rest of the country,” Tooley said.

Results of a survey released recently by the website CarInsuranceComparison.com concluded that Montana has the worst drivers in the U.S. It was based on such categories as fatality rates, drunken driving, speeding and careless driving citations. But those numbers, provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, relied on data from 2015, the most recent year complete numbers are available.

Another insurance company, Quote Wizard, used much the same criteria and ranked Montana drivers only the 38th worst (or 13th best) in the nation. That was based on 2014 data, when the state’s death toll was 192, as well as on historical trends.

The Montana Highway Patrol (MHP) keeps records of fatalities dating back to 1945. The annual toll topped 200 for the first time in 1950. Counting this year, it has fallen below 200 just seven times since, four of them in the past eight years. The worst year on state highways resulted in a whopping 395 deaths in 1972.

Maybe the best news from 2017 is that driving deaths related to alcohol have plummeted. Last year half of all fatalities were alcohol-related. This year the share has been less than a third.

MHP releases weekly updates of crashes and deaths, including the factors and general circumstances surrounding them. While numbers are confirmed only through September, suspected causes through Dec. 27 remain consistent: Alcohol-related highway deaths have dropped by more than a third compared to last year, from 94 to 60. 

Maybe it has to do with more ride-sharing, said Kristin Banchero, MHP's public information officer. Maybe people stayed home more during the summer of smoke. Or maybe people are just making better choices when it comes to drinking and driving.

“But it’s really fabulous to see,” she said. “We have a few more days to go, and the big New Year’s Eve holiday coming up. I hope we can see those numbers stay down consistently.”

Suspected speed-related deaths have fallen 12 percent, to 65 from 74 at the same time last year. Also down markedly are commercial vehicle deaths (a drop of 32 percent), one-vehicle crashes (18 percent) and fatal crashes in which seat belts weren’t used (13.5 percent).

“One of the things that the Patrol colonel (Tom Butler) said is we think centerline rumble strips are making a gigantic difference on the roadways,” Tooley said. “The department has instituted a program through at least three MDT districts for centerline rumble strips to be installed where there have been a number of head-on collisions or roadway departure crashes. So people are actually staying in their lanes. That's what the patrols see.”

It’s altogether possible the new rumble strips are even helping limit drunken driving crashes.

“Not that it’s the only answer," Tooley said. "It may be just that it isn’t socially acceptable any more to be drinking and driving.”

Among the most notable increases in 2017: Fatalities in crashes involving out-of-state vehicles, which dropped last year from 40 to 25, climbed up again to 37 as of Wednesday, a rise of 48 percent.

Banchero said high visibility traffic enforcement plays “a huge part” in reducing highway tolls, as does educational outreach such as safety talks, inspections and MDT’s Vision Zero program. The latter stresses education, enforcement, engineering of Montana roadways, and emergency medical response that’s adequately funded and equipped. Vision Zero was launched in mid-2014 and seems to be having an impact: three of the four years since have ended with highway death tolls under 200.

Precise reasons for the declining death tolls are elusive, especially before the data is fully analyzed in the early months of next year.

“For a lot of these, it’s probably a combination of a lot of different variables,” Banchero said. “If it’s slightly higher next year it doesn’t mean everything’s lost, so we’ve got to be careful in analyzing the numbers. But I think it’s definitely a positive trend, and we will just hope that we can maintain it.”

“I don’t think it’s any one thing. I think it’s a lot of things,” Tooley agreed. “It starts with the fact that we’re starting to take this seriously and not accepting (a highway fatality) as a natural cause of death.”

Tooley said 185 deaths on Montana roads are still too many.

“But it isn’t 395, like in 1972,” he said. “I think we need to celebrate the fact we’re moving in the right direction. We are doing something different here than most states. Even though we have challenges that many others don’t, we’re still cutting our numbers down.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian