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Highway fatalities in Montana jumped 17 percent in 2015. While it’s too early to pin down the reason, state officials have their theories.

At least 224 people died on state roads last year, after 2014 ended with an encouraging count of 192. That was down 16 percent from 2013 and just the second time in 18 years fatalities dipped below 200.

“We’re definitely going the wrong direction,” said Mike Tooley, director of the Montana Department of Transportation who launched MDT’s Vision Zero in May 2014.

Increased travel in response to plummeting gas prices, earlier winter travel conditions, and an increase of the speed limit on most sections of the Montana's interstate highways from 75 mph to 80 mph in October are all potential factors.

But the climb to 224 isn’t so severe when compared with the 2013 fatality count of 229, or the four-year average of 212, said Col. Tom Butler, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol.

“It’s very difficult to pin down a year-to-year change because there are so many factors that go into a fatal crash,” Butler said. “Saying one year we had an X increase because of this is just impossible to do.”

The average price of a gallon of regular gas fell under $2 twice in 2015, in the spring and in late December. Travelers were paying as little as $1.88 in Polson during the past weekend. In Missoula, most gas stations were charging $1.95 as the year came to a close.

“With fuel prices being down and the economy recovering, people are obviously taking to the highway more, which of course increased the exposure to (accidents),” Tooley said. “But none of that should be a problem if not for behavioral issues.”

***

According to Tooley, the same three factors dominate the accident statistics every year: Speed, alcohol and lack of seat belt use.

“I’d actually put seat belt use at the top,” he said.

“The one thing that always stands out is a colossal lack of seat belt use,” Butler agreed.

It’ll be 30 days from the end of December before the official 2015 highway death toll is known, said Butler. “But as the numbers stand today, 178 of the 224 deaths were not wearing seat belts. That means three-fourths of them could easily be still alive today.”

The highway patrol breaks down factors in crashes and fatalities into a dozen categories. According to a preliminary report, only one of the 12 reflected a decrease from 2014 to 2015. Alcohol was a factor in 75 deaths, down from 77.

Speed played a part in 77 deaths as opposed to 49 in 2014. Other significant increases included deaths in daylight hours (a 49 percent rise, from 85 to 127) and deaths in one-vehicle crashes (up 18 percent from 130 to 153).

“Folks are speeding, leaving the roadway and not wearing seat belts,” Tooley said.

The report also includes data for five kinds of roadways – interstate, primary, rural, secondary and urban. The biggest statewide increase in both crashes and deaths occurred on secondary roads. Forty-three people died on Montana two-lane roads outside of towns that are neither U.S. or state highways. That compares with just 23 the previous year. It was a jump of a whopping 87 percent.

Meanwhile, crashes and deaths on urban streets showed declines of 33 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Most of the increases in fatalities happened in the Havre and Billings districts, which accounted for 12 and 11 more deaths, respectively. The Kalispell district of northwestern Montana saw one more death in 2015: 23, compared with 22 in 2014 (and 40 in the deadly year of 2013.)

The Missoula district actually saw a drop – from 27 in 2014 to 26 last year.

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MDT’s Vision Zero campaign has the admittedly lofty goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities in a year. Tooley said the jury is out on a new law passed by the 2015 Legislature that increases the fine substantially for a first-time conviction of driving under the influence.

“We’re waiting to see what the effect of that is, but it really should improve the first-time DUI offense picture,” he said. “If you stop it at the first-offense level, you stop it at the seventh-offense level.”

Ongoing attempts in the Legislature have failed to make lack of seat belt use a primary offense for which a vehicle can be stopped by law enforcement for no other reason. Tooley said he always goes to the Capitol to support such bills, and points to the success in other states that have passed a primary seat belt law. Studies show that a 10 percent increase in usage would equate to at least 12 lives saved in a year.

Tooley lauded Sen. Dick Barrett, a Democrat from Missoula, for trying a new tactic in 2015. His proposal kept seat belt violations as secondary offenses, but raised the fines from $20 to $100. It died on a 6-6 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Tooley called it “the most promising I’ve seen in years for adult seat belt use.”

Among Montana’s neighbors, Oregon had an even worse report card for highway fatalities, Tooley said. But Utah, Wyoming and “a number of other states with similar attitudes to government as Montana” are having greater success. He intends to research the reasons why.

Butler is waiting for a three-month view to see what effect, if any, the 80 mph interstate speed limit has had on crashes and fatalities.

Because of varying winter road conditions, “it’s going to be at least into midsummer before we have some sort of trend on that," Butler said.

***

MDT’s Tooley admitted the upturn of fatalities is “kind of disheartening.”

“One of the things we’re planning on doing in 2016 is taking a broader look at this,” he said. “Not only is it a traffic-safety issue, but it’s a public-safety issue. We’ve about engineered these highways to be as safe as possible, although there’s always more you can do.”

He plans to bring together top state and county officials from the areas of public health, education, enforcement and even the Department of Revenue to brainstorm.

“We’ve got to do something different,” Tooley said. “There are so many folks involved in the bigger picture but tied to this issue. They might have some ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.”

Butler said he was reminded when crunching the numbers Monday that highway deaths are more than just statistics.

“We become so numb to this,” he said. “That’s almost 1,000 people who are dead in the last four years (on Montana roads). We sometimes forget these are people with families, friends, cousins, aunts and uncles. ... Everything in their lives and a whole host of other lives comes to an end one day with a snap of the finger.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

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