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Mazurek says speed limit partly responsible for 7.2 percent decline

HELENA - Deaths on Montana's highways dropped by 7.2 percent last year, credited in part to the state's 1999 numerical daytime speed limit, but officials remain concerned about fatalities involving people not wearing seat belts, the Highway Patrol's annual report says.

Attorney General Joe Mazurek, the state's chief legal and law enforcement officer, said in an introductory letter in the report that he was pleased to see the number of fatalities drop from 237 to 220 in 1999. He attributed some of the decline to the 1999 state law, which took effect May 28, that set a daytime speed limit of 75 mph on interstate highways and generally 70 mph on two-lane roads.

The limits were enacted after the state went more than three years without a daytime speed limit.

However, Mazurek said he is concerned about a trend that is on the upswing in Montana - the number of people killed in single-vehicle rollovers because they weren't wearing seat belts.

"Last year, 110 single-vehicle crashes caused 116 deaths - over half of all traffic deaths for 1999," said Mazurek, a Democratic candidate for governor. "Yet this is one of the most preventable type of traffic fatalities that occur in Montana."

Col. Bert Obert, chief of the Highway Patrol, said the department is pleased with the declining fatality rate and believes it is the result, in part, of the speed limit.

He advocates stricter enforcement of seat-belt laws, saying: "We also believe stricter enforcement of restraint and seat belts will also save additional lives in Montana and make this an even safer state to drive."

Currently, people not wearing seat belts on Montana's roads can't be charged with a violation unless they also have broken another law such as speeding. The 1999 Legislature killed a bill that would have made failure to wear a seat belt a primary violation of the law.

Although fatalities declined by 7.2 percent, injuries in crashes were up 1.3 percent.

Here are some other highlights from the 1999 report:

  • Besides the 220 fatalities, 10,459 injuries and 21,078 crashes occurred on the state's highways during the year. Broken down a different way, on average one fatality took place every 40 hours, one injury every 50 minute and one crash every 25 minutes. There were an average of 58 crashes per day in 1999.
  • The total economic loss because of highway accidents was estimated at $677 million for the year, an average of $1.86 million a day in losses.
  • Most fatal crashes happened between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. More fatal crashes were on Saturdays rather than another other day of the week. And September had the most fatalities in 1999 with 29, followed by August with 26.
  • Labor Day weekend was the deadliest highway period on Montana's highways, with six people killed in highway accidents in 1999.
  • Single-vehicle wrecks made up 71.13 percent of all fatal accidents, 45.63 percent of all injury crashes and 43.04 percent of all crashes in Montana last year.
  • Law-enforcement officials reported the presence of alcohol or drugs in 32.42 per cent of drivers in fatal crashes and 10.4 percent of all injury crashes.
  • Of the people killed in vehicle accidents, including pedestrians, 147 were men and 73 were women.
  • Ninety-seven of the 194 fatal crashes occurred during daylight; 80 took place when it was dark and not lighted. As for road conditions, 152 of the 194 fatal wrecks occurred on dry road conditions. Sixteen took place on icy conditions and 11 on wet roads.
  • Sixty of the 194 crashes occurred on state routes, 50 on U.S. routes, 44 on county roads, 32 on interstates and eight on city streets.
  • Out of 284 motorcycle crashes, there were 15 fatalities.
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