DUI task force

Ravalli County DUI Task Force Coordinator Glenda Wiles and member Katelyn Lester watch as the MAPS production crew re-creates the scene of Lester’s near-fatal DUI accident that happened in Florence five years ago.

In the face of increasing highway fatalities, the Montana Department of Transportation has awarded $2.66 million in grants to an initiative called Vision Zero that aims to eliminate deaths and serious injuries on Montana roads.

More than $310,000 went to law agencies and programs in western Montana for stepped-up DUI patrols, equipment, and Buckle Up Montana coalitions in Missoula and Flathead counties.

Those two counties received $116,000 and $88,000, respectively. More than $1.5 million went toward four Montana Highway Patrol programs.

The money is “vital to saving lives and preventing injuries,” Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley noted in a press announcement.

Much of the grant money is devoted to the transportation department's Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP), which helps fund overtime patrols and equipment as part of Vision Zero’s emphasis on enforcement of seat belt and impaired driving laws.

Largely because of the state grants, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office is in line to have all 39 patrol officers outfitted with body cameras in the next couple of months.

The first batch of 16 cameras, paid for with $13,000 from the 2015 grant, recently arrived, according to Lt. David Conway, who wrote the grant application. Another 13 will be on the way when next year’s state traffic safety grant closes. The remaining 10, at roughly $810 apiece, will be paid for using department funds.

The body cameras interface with the sheriff’s office car camera system made by the same company, said Conway.

“We thank MDT for providing this opportunity to buy equipment that’s going to make our officers and the public safer,” he said.

The Missoula Police Department netted $45,000 for its STEP patrols and another $10,000 for the South Western Montana Law Enforcement Liaison. The Missoula City-County Health Department received $35,000 for the Buckle Up Montana Coalition. The Flathead health department got $40,000 for the same line item, the biggest single chunk of money granted west of the mountains.

STEP funding also went to the Columbia Falls Police Department ($16,000); the Flathead Tribal Police in Pablo ($28,000); the Ronan Police Department ($7,500); and the Whitefish Police Department ($24,500). The Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes received $30,328 for its Safe On All Roads program.

Preliminary numbers through Sept. 21 show 159 people have died on state roads this year, up from 140 for the same period last year – an increase of 13.6 percent. Fatal crashes have risen 12.5 percent, from 128 to 144.

Native American fatalities through Sept. 8 climbed even faster, from 25 to 33 – a 32-percent increase.

“We are headed in the wrong direction if zero is the goal,” Tooley said when announcing the grants. “Preventing these fatalities is up to everyone, not just those who do it for a living.”

He urged all Montanans to do their parts by making sure everyone in the vehicle is buckled, by paying attention to the road, and by never letting anyone drive impaired.

Fatalities in crashes when seat belts weren’t used also climbed, from 86 a year ago to 94, though the percentage of occupants without seat belts has dropped slightly, from 76.8 percent to 72.3 percent.

The good news is that alcohol-involved fatalities are down significantly, from 36 to 23. The percentage of fatal accidents in which alcohol was involved has dropped nearly 44 percent, from 25.7 percent to 14.5 percent.

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