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Pileup on I90

Workers repair damage to guardrails and other structures at the scene of an early morning pileup of five tractor-trailers on Interstate 90 west of Superior in December of 2018. Two people died in the incident that began on extremely icy roads with the first truck crashing and strewing its load of lumber across both eastbound lanes.

Tragedy in multiple doses marked the final weeks of 2018 on Montana highways, but preliminary numbers indicate the year’s final fatality toll was still as low as it's been in nearly 70 years.

A report released Monday by the Montana Highway Patrol said 181 people died last year in traffic crashes. That was the same number recorded in 1989, the state’s centennial year.

Before that, the annual toll hadn’t dipped so low since 1949, when 162 fatalities were recorded. It jumped to 202 the following year and remained above 200 in all but nine years since. The death count peaked at 395 in 1972.

The MHP report presents statistics confirmed through October and “suspected” for the final two months of 2018. A final annual report will be released in the spring.

Highway deaths dropped from 224 in 2015 to 190, 186 and 181 in the three years since.

Last year was marked by a stretch of 31 days, from Feb. 27 to March 29, in which no one died on Montana's roads.

“Coming into November we were on pace to be 20 below (181),” said Lt. Col. Tom Butler, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol. “Thanksgiving weekend was horrific as far as fatal crashes were concerned. There were real tragedies all across the state, including the family of four who lost their lives over by Billings.”

In all, a dozen people died on state roads from Wednesday through Sunday of that late November week. Each of three crashes in eastern Montana resulted in multiple deaths. In one of them, all four members of an Air Force family from North Dakota were killed on Interstate 94. They were en route from Idaho to Thanksgiving dinner in Ekalaka. The wreckage of their Toyota 4Runner was discovered a day later in Pryor Creek near Huntley.

Western Montana was the scene of another horrific wreck early in the dark morning hours of Dec. 19 east of Superior. Two truck drivers were killed in a chain-reaction pileup of five tractor trailers units on Interstate 90, although only one counted against the state death toll.

Vilyam Veresko, 30, of Moses Lake, Washington, fell to his death after leaving his truck that blocked the westbound lane and reportedly jumping off an overpass bridge to avoid an oncoming semi. While Veresko’s death came as a result of the chain-reaction crashes, Butler said it didn’t fit the criteria established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to encourage uniformity of highway fatality reporting.

As always, weather played a big role in the year’s crash patterns.

The February-March stretch with no fatalities “was 100 percent the weather,” said Butler. “It was completely miserable and nobody was out doing anything. Then we had nice roads through most of November and into December."

Since 2014, the Montana Department of Transportation has emphasized Vision Zero, with a goal of eliminating deaths and injuries on Montana highways. The program focuses on the four E’s: education, enforcement, engineering and emergency medical response.

Butler pointed to more crash-friendly guardrails, the growing number of roads lined with rumble strips, high-visibility traffic enforcement, and vehicles produced by manufacturers "with a vested interest in people surviving crashes," as some reasons why the death toll is dropping. 

“It’s a positive that we’re lower this year," Butler said, "but what always gets lost is that’s 181 families that somebody’s not coming home to again, employees that aren’t going to work the next day. That’s the real tragedy about this in my view.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

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