Three die in October crash east of Billings

Emergency responders examine an SUV that crashed near the Arrow Creek exit in Interstate 90 east of Billings in October.

Don’t take this too literally, but Montana’s highways and byways got safer in 2014.

Statewide traffic fatalities dropped under 200 for just the second time in 18 years, according to preliminary figures from the Montana Highway Patrol.

The decrease from 229 highway deaths in 2013 to 192 last year represented a drop of more than 16 percent, the biggest plummet in at least 30 years. They were even lower in 2010, at 188, then climbed to 209 and 205 the next two years.

The 2014 numbers are encouraging, Charity Watt of the Montana Department of Transportation said Wednesday, but the initiative her department launched in May with a coalition of others was aiming for much better.

Vision Zero’s stated mission is to eliminate all highway deaths, an admittedly impossible goal.

“We know it’s a moving target, but if you ask someone how many of their friends or family it would be OK to die on the road, they would say zero,” Watt said.

The state's 188 highway fatalities in 2010 were fewest since 1989. Montana dipped below 200 just five more times in the ensuing 25 years.

Two of 12 categories that highway safety officials study account for the lion's share of the decrease in 2014. Pedestrian-involved highway deaths dropped from 24 to 10, and motorcycle fatalities fell from 34 to 23. Together they accounted for 25 of the 37 fewer deaths.

Watt said it’s difficult to pinpoint reasons for either, especially this early.

“We’d like to be able to point out one thing and say, yeah, this worked,” she said. “But there are just so many facets of traffic safety, so many angles that everyone’s working on.”

At MDT, it’s engineering roads to make them as safe as possible. Others address seat belt and impaired driving issues. Working on emergency response time is one that many people don’t think about.

“In Montana, when you crash you’re likely to be more than an hour away from a trauma center, and that time in an emergency response is critical,” she said.

Vision Zero specifically targeted more use of seat belts and less abuse of alcohol when driving, and those issues are ongoing, Watt said. A whopping 156 of the 192 people who died on Montana roads last year were not buckled, though that number doesn’t winnow out pedestrians and bicyclists. Still it’s down nearly 18 percent from the 190 of 2013.

Deaths in which alcohol was a factor were among the few categories that rose in 2014, though minimally – from 41 to 43.

“It does seem people’s tolerance for impaired driving and not buckling up is waning,” Watt observed. “More and more Montanans are insisting their friends and families buckle up, and they’re not allowing people who have been drinking or using drugs to get behind the wheel.”

Speed was a factor in 49 deaths, six more than alcohol and 20 fewer than during the previous year. At least four bills have been drafted for the 2015 Montana Legislature proposing to raise the daytime speed limit on interstate highways from 75 mph to 80 and even 85 mph.


Though it’s not always the case, Montana’s most populous highway district centered in Billings led the way in 2014 with 30 traffic deaths. That was down 10 from 2013 and 2012.

The Missoula and Butte districts each had 27 fatals. Kalispell was down to 22 after spiking at 40 last year.

The Montana Highway Patrol breaks down the fatality numbers by roads – primary, rural, interstate, secondary and urban (in order of most to least fatalities).

Another dozen categories consider things like alcohol and speed as factors, one-vehicle crashes, seat belts, wet or icy roads, and daylight crashes.

There were no traffic fatalities involving hazardous materials last year and two involving bicycles. Thirty-nine people lost their lives in accidents in which vehicles from other states or countries were involved, down from 56 the year before.

Idaho, the neighboring state closest to Montana in terms of population and highway miles, counted 187 fatalities in its preliminary totals. According to an Idaho Transportation Department release, it was the third time in four years the number remained below 200 – “a measure of roadway safety the state could not reach for the better part of 60 years.”

Wyoming fatalities jumped from a 20-year low of 87 in 2013 to 148 last year. North Dakota finished 2014 with 137 fatalities. South Dakota had 134. All are preliminary counts.

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