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LAUREL — Speaking to the media while using one of Montana’s deadliest stretches of roadway as a backdrop, Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley on Tuesday called for “a changed mindset” among the state’s drivers, particularly those who have been drinking or become distracted while driving.

“Please, take what you do behind the wheel seriously,” Tooley said during a press conference held beneath a bridge along U.S. Highway 212 about two miles south of Laurel. “No longer can we turn our cheek and hope that everyone makes it home all right.”

MDT's efforts include major improvements to Highway 212. Together with federal funding, MDT is spending up to $46.8 million on a three-phase project to widen and improve Highway 212, including planned construction of three passing lanes.

The first phase, completed this summer, replaced the railroad underpass and substandard two-lane roadway south of Laurel with a new overpass over the BNSF railway.

Phase 2, nearly complete, redesigns the intersection of U.S. Highways 212 and 310 at Rockvale to manage increased traffic and provide for safer turns.

The third phase, scheduled to go out for bid in early 2016, will construct a new 10-mile stretch of U.S. 212 to address safety issues on the existing highway. It includes three four-lane segments for safer passing. The plan is for the 10-mile stretch of highway to eventually be four lanes throughout, but that will be contingent on future traffic capacity needs. Once the new highway is finished in 2017, the existing highway will remain in place for local access and be renamed Boones Ferry Road.

“Too many people have died or suffered serious injury in crashes” on Highway 212 between Laurel and Rockvale, Tooley said. “There is an average of one white cross per mile on this stretch, and we don’t want to place even one more.”

While modern highway engineering and construction help to keep motorists and passengers safe, non-transportation agencies are also working to bring down Yellowstone County’s traffic fatality rate, which at 202 during the decade 2005-14 was the state’s highest. Of those 202 deaths, 52 percent involved at least one impaired driver, and 66 percent were attributed to seat belts not being used.

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Nicholas Owens, a deputy Yellowstone County Attorney who chairs the county’s DUI task force, noted there were 3,635 car crashes in Yellowstone County in 2014 — about 1,000 more than in Missoula County, the state’s second-leading county for crashes.

Eighteen people were killed in vehicle crashes in Yellowstone County in 2014, according to MDT statistics. Of those crash fatalities, 11 — 61 percent — involved at least one impaired driver.

“Law enforcement is not the only force on the road,” Owens said. “We must change the culture around drinking and driving.”

Police, sheriff’s deputies and the Montana Highway Patrol once again plan to step up patrol leading up to Labor Day, as they also do over the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving holidays. MHP Sgt. Craig Baum said the success of the program is in part due to troopers being freed to seek out the traffic violations, including speeding and aggressive driving, often associated with impaired driving.

Those officers work overtime, Owens said, to “locate drunk drivers and hold them criminally accountable.”

John Kougioulis of Townsend also has an important role making Montana roads safer. As the American Legion’s fatality marker chair, Kougioulis helps local chapters place crosses at the scene of fatal accidents to remind motorists they’re traveling a dangerous section of roadway.

When an agency like MDT makes a road safer by, for example, broadening it, the American Legion is called out to remove the fatality marker.

“The family sometimes gets excited, but it’s a good thing,” Kougioulis said. “It means the road is now safer.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.