A deadly summer on Montana’s highways and byways eased up in late fall. In the end the fatality toll in 2019 approached the previous year’s near-record low of the post-World War II era.
The Montana Highway Patrol recorded 185 deaths compared to 182 in 2018. The latest numbers are confirmed through October and “suspected” in the two months after that.
It’s the fourth consecutive year the year-end toll was 190 or lower following a spike to 224 in 2015. The total of 182 in 2018 was lowest in 29 years, and that 1989 count of 181 was the lowest since 1949 — a decade before construction began on the interstate highway system.
Crashes in 2019 involving single or multiple fatalities fell by one to 167, fewest in at least nine years.
According to weekly MHP updates, last year’s highway death toll soared during the summer months and beyond. Comparative fatalities in 2018 and 2019 were almost even on Memorial Day weekend (47 in 2018, 46 in 2019). By mid-October, 2019 had seen 23 more deaths than at the same point the year before. But travelers last year avoided the especially deadly Thanksgiving weekend and another pre-Christmas spate experienced in 2018.
"It’s difficult so soon to account for the difference, but weather can factor into the fatal crash count," MHP chief Lt. Col. Tom Butler said this week.
“You can have a bad month of weather, which positively impacts the fatal count, or you can have a great month of weather, which negatively impacts it,” Butler said.
Butler said it’s important to look beyond numbers when it comes to highway deaths.
“What gets lost in all these statistics is there are 185 families across the state today that are missing somebody at the dinner table who was there a year ago,” he said. “These are lives we’re talking about — mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, cousins. Really, as a state we’re almost numb to that.”
Attorney General Tim Fox had a similar message, with an emphasis on the harm wrought by drunk and impaired driving, in an introduction to the Highway Patrol’s 2018 annual report in May.
“It’s been said that statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away,” Fox wrote. “While the pages that follow are full of data that is both insightful and alarming at times, there’s no yardstick with which to measure the cost of lives lost to impaired driving.
“Too many Montana families have grieved the loss of a beloved son or daughter killed driving home from a party that involved drugs or alcohol. Too many Montana businesses have struggled to stay viable when valued employees are injured or killed in crashes stemming from substance abuse.”
Alcohol was a suspected factor in 39.5% of highway deaths in 2019, down slightly from 40.1% in 2018 but significantly higher than the 32.8% in 2017.
“The alcohol issue is a very difficult nut to crack in this state,” Butler said. “Alcohol is ingrained in almost every sort of function that happens in Montana. The small-town taverns are often the center of community interaction. It’s really a cultural shift that has to occur.
“We and others in the state have done a lot of educating and messaging on the importance of driving sober. The numbers bear out that there’s still plenty of work that has to be done.”
While alcohol was suspected to be involved in 73 deaths in 2019, drugs were suspected in 61 — one of every three. That was down from 66 the previous year, but still higher than the 55 in 2017.
Two MHP categories reflected substantial rises in the 2019 highway toll.
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Out-of-state vehicles were involved in 51 fatalities, up from 37 the year before. Commercial vehicle crashes killed 23 people compared to 14 in 2018.
Butler didn’t have the data at hand but said he sees both increases as upshots of higher truck and tourist travel in the state.
“It is really a function of the economy,” he said. “Everything we buy in Montana or everything we order over the internet comes to Montana on a truck. As the economy grows, commercial traffic is going to increase in our state and every other state.”
Tourist visits statewide haven’t increased markedly in the past few years, but the state’s premier tourist attraction, Glacier National Park, rebounded after a fire-plagued 2018 to top 3 million visitors again.
Butler was encouraged by a significant drop in fatalities in which seatbelts weren’t used. A downward trend was interrupted in 2018, when the numbers jumped from 85 deaths to 92. But they slid to 76 last year, a decrease of 17%.
“That’s a heartwarming statistic to me,” he said. “I really think that’s a cultural shift in what people think about the utilization of seatbelts. It’s very difficult to find any school-age child that hasn’t had some sort of discussion of the importance of wearing seatbelts.”
Meanwhile, 50 people died in crashes in which seatbelts were worn.
Statewide campaigns by MHP, the Montana Department of Transportation and others have kept seatbelt use front and center. So have the biennial legislative sessions, which have long featured unsuccessful efforts to make driving without a seatbelt a primary offense. Montana is one of 15 states in which someone can be cited for no seatbelts only if they've been stopped for another offense.
There was also a decrease in fatalities due to speeding. According to MHP, those numbers have seen a steady drop in the past four years from 76 to 69 to 58 to a suspected 47. Speeding was a cause in 40% of all highway fatalities in 2016, but in just 25% in 2019.
Of Montana Highway Patrol's eight districts, three had notable improvements in traffic deaths in 2019. The Great Falls district in north-central Montana dropped from 18 fatalities in 2018 to nine. Bozeman, in south-central Montana, fell from 21 to 14, and Billings deaths decreased from 39 to 32.
The largest increases were in districts headquartered in Butte (from 16 to 25) and Glendive (17 to 23).
Neither of Western Montana's districts, Missoula and Kalispell, saw significant changes. The Missoula district, which includes Interstate 90 west to the Idaho line, has counted 22, 23 and 24 highway fatalities in the past three years. Kalispell's numbers have been 24, 24 and 26 in the same time period.
The final fatality numbers for 2019 probably won't change much, said Charity Watt of the Montana Department of Transportation.
"We go through the vetting process, then work with the national numbers to make sure they’re all correct," Watt said. "One of the takeaways is, because we’re dealing with such small numbers, the change can look like a big jump. Generally we look at them not from year to year but, say, a five-year average. But definitely we have our eye on what’s happening."