Not even halfway through 2016, Yellowstone County has already seen as many crash deaths — 17 — for the year as it did in all of 2015.

Across Montana through May 16, the number of traffic fatalities has increased 45 percent from the same time last year, from 42 to 61.

With those numbers in mind, along with the often busy Memorial Day weekend approaching, state transportation officials spent Tuesday morning in Billings speaking with local organizations and businesses about deadly crashes and the role seat belt use can play in preventing them.

"It's pretty much double in some places in Montana over this time last year," said Mike Tooley, Montana Department of Transportation director. "And those are preventable deaths."

In 2015 in Montana, about 70 percent of the fatalities in automobiles equipped with seat belts involved the victims either not wearing seat belts or not wearing them properly.

During Tuesday's tour, Tooley, along with Montana Highway Traffic Safety Section Supervisor Janet Kenny and MDT cultural liaison Sheila Cozzie, spent time speaking with St. Vincent Healthcare staff about the effects of vehicle crashes, went over child car seat safety with ambulance crews and checked out wrecked vehicles and a local wrecking yard.

A common thread worked its way through each stop: Many fatal crashes can be prevented with seat belt use.

At St. Vincent, Dr. Barry McKenzie, director of the hospital's trauma center, told Tooley that one of his biggest challenges in dealing with crash victims is "knowing it's preventable" and that he's tired of Montana having some of the worst fatality rates in the country.

"The best form of trauma care is trauma prevention," he said, adding that using seat belts, not drinking and driving, not driving distracted and wearing a helmet while on a motorcycle can go a long way to providing that prevention.

In Yellowstone County in 2015, 12 of the 18 crash deaths were in vehicles with seat belts and of those, three-quarters involved improper seat belt use.

To demonstrate the importance of seat belt use, the officials also had the chance to tour one section of the hospital's intensive care unit where half of the patients are there for serious trauma injuries, all but one of whom suffered injuries in vehicle crashes while not wearing a seat belt.

"We don't see or treat a lot of people that were wearing a seat belt," said Justin Logan, a clinical specialist in the hospital's emergency department.

On several occasions, Tooley brought up that Montana doesn't have a primary seat belt law, only a secondary one. That means that while people can be ticketed for not wearing one, they can't be pulled over solely for that reason.

Statistics from other states have shown, Tooley said, that the implementation of a primary seat belt law can increase seat belt usage by more than 10 percent. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, such a law could also prevent 11 fatalities and more than 1,100 injuries each year in Montana, while increased fines for not wearing one could have a similar effect.

Medical officials said they're working on getting such a law passed in Montana.

"We really want to show people what could happen," Tooley said. "Driving is serious business, and I think a lot of people take that simple act for granted."

Child safety

During a stop by American Medical Response, emergency crews there talked with the state officials about proper child car seat use, including how to correctly install them while advising that parents carefully read and follow both the seat's and the car's owner's manuals. 

Crews also went over some of the state's traffic injury and fatality numbers involving youth, noting that about 10 children age 14 and younger and 25 ages 15 to 19 die each year in crashes.

"We have a pretty high rate in Montana for these kids," said Andrew Goss, a registered nurse at Billings Clinic and certified car seat technician. "Part of that is making sure they're restrained properly — and parents can set an example there."

Later on, the group visited Hanser's automotive services business, which is one of several companies in the area that tows vehicles after wrecks, to speak with employees and the Montana Highway Patrol while looking at cars and trucks damaged in serious crashes.

MHP Sgt. Scott Ayers said that education is important in getting more people to wear seat belts.

"I can't say enough about the proper use of seat belts and child seats," he said. "If someone wants to survive a crash, that's the No. 1 thing you can do."

Tooley said that it's tough to tell exactly why traffic fatality numbers are up so much this year, but that it's got to change.

As he toured the yard at Hanser's, he came across the mangled remains of a car. Hanser's employees told him the car crashed in a nearby county. The driver, they told him, wasn't wearing a seat belt and died, and a young child was injured.

"None of this has to happen," he said. "How would somebody behave if they knew their car was going to end up here today like this from a crash? I bet they'd change."

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