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The first 3½ months of 2011 have seen fewer crash fatalities on Montana roads than in the same period of the past three years.

The year’s highway death toll stood at 28 people on Monday. Terrible as that number is, it is 16 fewer lives lost than in the same period of 2010 and 26 fewer deaths than in that period of 2009, according to Montana Highway Patrol data.

Montana has so far continued on that safer path, even as national traffic safety data indicates that a recent trend toward fewer fatalities may be reversing.

Last year, the number of U.S. motor vehicle traffic fatalities was the lowest on record — the lowest number since 1949, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in an April report. NHTSA estimates that 32,788 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2010, which would be a 3 percent decline over the 33,808 people killed in 2009.

NHTSA reported this month that the number of U.S. traffic fatalities declined for 17 consecutive quarters. However, that streak ended in the third quarter of 2010 when the number of people killed actually increased by 1.6 percent compared with the toll in the third quarter of 2009.

Statistics indicate that Americans drove more miles in 2010 than in 2009, but drove more safely. The rate of fatalities per million vehicle miles traveled declined last year to a record low of 1.09.

Changes in highway statistics vary by region. The NHSTA region that includes Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska posted the biggest decrease in fatalities last year — a reduction of 12 percent. Yet our neighbors in the region of Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota saw a fatality reduction of only 0.7 percent for the year. The region including California, Arizona and Hawaii had a drop of 10.8 percent. Three regions in the upper Midwest and Northeast recorded increased fatalities.

It’s hard to say what all accounts for the reduction in fatalities. Typically, fewer crashes are recorded in hard economic times as fewer miles are driven. With gas prices rising, some motorists may be driving slower to get the maximum mileage out of a gallon of fuel.

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The Montana Highway Patrol reports that the number of alcohol-related fatalities has declined by 62 percent while the overall fatality count is down by 36 percent compared to 2010. Similarly, the number of Montana motorists killed while not wearing a seat belt has dropped by about 60 percent in the first part of this year.

Those statistics suggest that more Montana drivers are choosing to drive sober and buckled into their seat belt.

That’s something to think about every time you start your vehicle. Buckle up, stay sober and alert.

Safe travels this Easter weekend.

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