Halfway through the year, 2019 has been deadlier than 2018 on Montana roads. Among the 65 traffic fatalities reported as of June 24, 18 occurred in the Billings Highway Patrol District. The next worst count was 12 in the Kalispell District.
Seven of the 18 deaths occurred in Big Horn County, one in Carbon County and the rest in Yellowstone County, MHP Billings District Capt. Keith Edgell said. Four occurred on primary roads, four on rural roads, two on secondary roads and only one on interstate highways. Seven occurred within the Billings city limits or in the surrounding urban area.
Billings District statistics are much worse this year than for the past two years. Eleven fatalities occurred between Jan. 1 and June 25 in 2017 and 2018, according to MHP.
What accounts for this series of 2019 tragedies?
For one thing, the six-month death toll includes seven motorcycle fatalities statewide; four were in the Billings District.
The fatal Billings motorcycle crashes occurred in the past several weeks. Most recently, a motorcyclist was fatally injured when his bike crossed the center line in the underpass at 13th Street South by Minnesota Avenue. Alcohol and speed are suspected.
The rise in fatalities is occurring at a time when MHP is short six officers in the Billings District. Edgell said he hopes to fill those vacancies this fall with graduates from the state law enforcement academy.
Meanwhile, officers in the district, which includes Yellowstone, Big Horn, Carbon, Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties, have been offered overtime pay to work extra shifts during Independence Day week. Federal traffic safety grants cover that overtime.
Although all seven "urban" fatalities occurred in or near Billings, most were outside of the city limits, so they were investigated by MHP officers. As of last week, Billings Police Department had investigated only three traffic fatalities for 2019, all within the past month, according to Lt. Brandon Wooley. Last year the city recorded 13 traffic deaths during 12 months, more than double the number in each of the previous two years.
Wooley said the department's special traffic enforcement officers have been working to stop motorcycle racing that has been reported on Shiloh Road. A motorcyclist was killed in a wreck at the Shiloh Road and Central Avenue roundabout, but police didn't say it was the result of racing.
All four assigned officers are back on traffic enforcement full time, Wooley said. Several months ago, they were frequently assigned to other patrol duties because the department was shorthanded.
The BPD plans extra traffic patrols for the Independence Day holiday. Two additional officers will be assigned to DUI and other traffic safety enforcement on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Wooley said. The overtime for those patrol is covered with federal grant money passed through the state.
Summer is the season when most of Montana's fatal crashes occur, but drivers can reduce that toll. Watch out for motorcycles, watch your speed, always drive sober and alert and buckle up whenever traveling. That's the way to make the highway crash statistics better in the second half of 2019.