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So far this year 171 people have died in Montana traffic crashes, according to the Montana Highway Patrol. That's the equivalent of a fatal crash occurring about four times a week.

This sad statistic actually represents a significant improvement over recent years. The 2010 traffic toll so far is lower than in any other year in the past decade.

Montana traffic fatalities are running 13 percent less than last year. That means 26 fewer people had died between Jan. 1 and Nov. 22, compared with the same period last year.

The most dramatic drop on the Montana Highway Patrol's weekly fatality report is alcohol-involved fatalities. The number of fatalities in which alcohol was a factor has declined by nearly 43 percent over last year. Unfortunately, there still have been 49 deaths this year attributed to drinking and driving.

Despite the 596 icy road accidents reported between Friday morning and Monday morning, the number of crashes for the year has dropped sharply, according to Lt. Col. Butch Huseby in Helena. As of Tuesday morning, the patrol had logged 15,699 crashes for the year, compared with 20,929 in all of 2009 and 22,374 in 2005.

Historically, a downturn in the economy precipitates reduction in traffic accidents because people travel less, Huseby said. But economics alone doesn't explain why Montana's alcohol-related fatalities have declined so sharply.

Huseby attributes part of the drop to the MHP's new emphasis on DUI enforcement. Statewide, MHP officers have made 20 percent more DUI arrests this year than last year, he said.

Surviving winter driving

As usual on holidays, MHP troopers will be working overtime shifts for traffic safety Wednesday through Sunday. Billings Highway Patrol Capt. Keith Edgell offered some tips on how travelers can minimize their risk of becoming an MHP emergency call:

Buckle up.

Allow yourself enough time to get to your destination.

Control your speed.

Be conscious of what you are driving on — bare pavement or glare ice.

Be especially cautious on bridge decks, which tend to ice up first.

Be alert for semi-trailers passing in snow and creating a brief whiteout. Go slow and drive straight ahead on the roadway.

Keep the gas tank topped off.

Travel with a survival kit, including a shovel, warm clothing or blankets, food and water.

If your vehicle slides off in the snow and you run the engine, be sure the tail pipe isn't blocked and crack a window to keep exhaust fumes from building up in your vehicle.

Calm fears of flying

For those of us flying this week, holiday travel may be more of a hassle than usual. Airport security has been increased with more full-body scanners nationwide and pat-down searches for travelers who refuse to go through the scanners. Outrage is all the rage. There's even been calls for travelers to rebel and tie up already long airport lines. Chill out, everybody. Terrorism is a real threat. The Christmas 2009 underpants bomber showed that security can be thwarted with explosives carried on a passenger's body. However, Transportation Security Administration staff must show restraint and courtesy in conducting all security screens. Let's get through this with the least stress possible and keep all Americans safe.