This winter has plagued Montanans with terrible driving conditions. Record amounts of snow dumped atop frozen rain turned streets into slip-and-slide zones.
However, by one important measure, the first two months of 2014 have been safer than last year. The number of highway traffic deaths so far this year is a third fewer than the toll at this time last year, according to the Montana Highway Patrol.
By the second week of March 2013, 32 people had lost their lives on Montana roads. So far this year, 21 deaths have been recorded.
One obvious improvement over last year is fewer pedestrian deaths. Two pedestrians have been killed this year, compared with seven at this point in 2013.
On the other hand, MHP preliminary data shows seven deaths in which alcohol is believed to be a factor, compared with two deaths at this time last year.
The most accurate data on alcohol and drug involvement comes from the Highway Traffic Safety Bureau in the Montana Department of Transportation. The bureau analyzes lab test results in addition to investigating officers’ reports. The traffic safety data for last year won’t be finalized for several months. However, preliminary analysis indicates that the number and proportion of impaired driver associated fatalities decreased sharply in 2013.
In 2011, 87 of 209 Montana traffic deaths (42 percent) were associated with impaired drivers, according to the Highway Traffic Safety Bureau. In 2012, 113 of 205 deaths (55 percent) were linked to impaired drivers. In 2013, 69 of 228 deaths (30 percent) involved impaired drivers, according to preliminary information.
Much as we hope Montana is turning the corner on drunken and drugged driving, it’s too soon to say how many lives have been saved by greater public safety awareness and tougher DUI laws. It’s going to take a lasting change of attitude about DUI to drive the highway death rate down for good.
In the past three years, 269 people died in crashes that could have been prevented if the drivers had stayed sober. Those are unacceptable losses. This terrible toll should strengthen Montanans’ resolve to always drive sober and alert, to keep friends and family from driving drunk or drugged and to support DUI enforcement.
To reduce Montana’s 2014 traffic death toll, Montanans must stop driving while drunk or drugged.