Montana’s highway crash statistics are going in the right direction: The state’s traffic death toll was lower in each of the past two years than it had been since 1989.
The bad news is that 187 people died on Montana roads last year. Even though that was 37 fewer lives lost than in 2015 and three fewer than in 2016, 187 lives is a terrible loss.
The number of crashes and deaths on interstate highways and urban streets actually increased over the past two years, according to Montana Highway Patrol data. But that was more than offset by reductions in fatal crashes on primary, rural and secondary roads. The largest drop in fatalities was recorded on rural roads — those two-lane stretches where traffic may be lighter but safety enhancements are likely to be lacking. Drivers on lonely roads are more likely to nod off, drift off and crash. The injured may be a great distance from definitive trauma care.
The MHP’s preliminary data for 2017 shows a remarkable decrease in fatal crashes in which investigators suspected alcohol or other drug involvement. There was also a decrease in victims who were fatally injured while not wearing a seat belt. Lack of seat belt use and drivers impaired by drug use have always been major factors in Montana’s high traffic death toll.
Along with changes in driver behavior, Montana traffic safety experts credit centerline rumble strips for preventing some of the worst crashes.
Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley and MHP Col. Tom Butler speculate that those annoyingly jarring and noisy bumps may be partially responsible for the reduction in highway fatalities in the past two years.
“Really, it’s the only thing that has significantly changed on our highways system from a design perspective in the last 40 years,” Butler, the MHP chief, told The Missoulian.
“I’ve had people complain and then the next month thank us for them,” said Tooley, whose career was with the Montana Highway Patrol before Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him to lead MDOT.
The MDOT has installed 2,625 miles of centerline rumble strips on two-lane roads in Billings, Butte and Great Falls districts. The work was completed with a federal safety improvement grant at a cost of about $3,300 per mile. Tooley said additional districts are slated for centerline rumble strips.
To get the most benefit for the safety grant, rumble strip projects target locations where crashes have occurred and also roads that have similar characteristics, Tooley said. An electronic safety management system that has been in use for a few years allows MDOT to identify the places where rumble strips can be most effective.
The Federal Highway Safety Administration reports that centerline rumble strips have been shown to reduce head-on, opposite-direction and sideswipe fatal and injury crashes by 44 percent to 64 percent.
Montana’s decrease in highway fatalities is all the more amazing because it has occurred while people are driving more miles in Montana. After decreasing in 2008, Montana’s billions of miles traveled measures have risen every year through 2016. Data for 2017 isn’t available yet.
Fewer deaths with more miles of driving adds up to safer roads.
Montanans will have to stay on this safety track for years to reverse our rank as the third most deadly driving state. The improvement seen in the past two years should remind Montanans that each of us can make a difference. Choosing a designated driver or calling a ride prevents DUI and death. Buckling up on every trip boosts your chance of arriving alive. Don’t be an MHP statistic; be safe.