By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Despite people's fears of snow-covered roads and head-on collisions, Montanans are most likely to be killed in single-car wrecks on dry pavement during daylight hours, the Montana Highway Patrol said.
In total, 23,529 car crashes on Montana roads claimed 269 lives last year, up 17 percent from 2001.
That total averages out to one traffic fatality every 33 hours, one traffic injury every 52 minutes and one car wreck every half-hour, according to an annual report for 2002.
The Highway Patrol report, which profiled fatal crashes from last year, identified some of the factors responsible for most of the collisions. Speed, inattentive driving or alcohol were cited most frequently.
Nearly 70 percent of fatalities resulted from crashes involving only one vehicle.
"Inattentive driving is a big factor," said Patrol Sgt. Mark Bosch of Havre. "People adjusting their radios or talking on their cell phone, basically anything that will divert their attention from the roadway. When you begin to drift off the road at 70 miles per hour, it is extremely difficult to correct."
Vehicles traveling at 70 mph cover more than 100 feet per second, Bosch said.
Two-thirds of those killed in the collisions were not wearing seat belts, the report said.
The seat belt problem is one that local, state and federal agencies are committed to solving, Bosch said.
Monday marks the beginning of All-Americam Buckle Up Week, a national campaign to educate drivers and promote seat belt use. Efforts include enforcement on the roadways as well as education and public awareness through schools and safety presentations.
Overall, seat belt use among Montanans is up from previous years. According to the Montana Department of Transportation, four out of five Montanans used seat belts in 2002, compared with 73 percent in 1998. According to the MDT, drivers and passengers are more inclined to buckle up while traveling on highways, but less so when driving in cities.
Drugs and alcohol were involved in one third of fatal crashes, the Highway Patrol report said.
Bosch said the number was down from previous years.
"In the past, alcohol was a factor in 40 to 45 percent of the crashes," he said. Better driver awareness and stricter laws are at least partially responsible for the decrease, he said.
Animals create additional risks on the road, the report said. Last year there were 1,946 crashes that involved animals. The majority - 1,725 of them - were caused by wild animals. There was only one fatality in 2002 resulting from animal-related crashes.
The Highway Patrol report showed that male drivers were involved in wrecks more frequently than their female counterparts, with men accounting for two-thirds of the fatalities.
The report also showed that baby boomers and the elderly were more likely to be killed in crashes. For instance, men between the ages of 45 and 54 were twice as likely to be killed than men aged 20 to 24. Women drivers over age 64 accounted for the highest percentage of female fatalities.
Older victims are simply more likely to die from their injuries, Bosch said.
The report also found that fatal crashes are more likely to occur during during the summer months and on weekends. Between June and September, more people were killed on Montana roads than during all of the other months combined and half of all traffic fatalities occurred between Friday and Sunday.
Wrecks are more frequent during the summer because of increased traffic, including recreational vehicles and farm equipment, Bosch said.
About half of all fatal wrecks occurred during daylight hours, the report said, most frequently between 5 and 6 p.m.
Bosch encouraged drivers to use caution and common sense when driving this summer.
"Be rested," he said. "Take frequent breaks and drive with your headlights on. The biggest thing is just to pay attention to the road. Drive defensively."
Wet or icy conditions were a factor in only 15 percent of the fatal crashes last year, but that figure is rising in 2003, Bosch said. Increased precipitation early this year is probably to blame, he added.
Trucks and SUVs accounted for more than half of the wrecks, the report said. Collisions involving busses, construction vehicles and minivans were responsible for the fewest number of fatalities.
Motorcycle crashes on Montana roads resulted in 25 deaths last year, including one in Hill County. The majority of the victims were between the ages of 35 and 64 and were not wearing helmets, the report said.
Last year in Hill County, Highway Patrol officers conducted 3,669 traffic stops, issued 3,042 tickets and gave 3,901 warnings. They drove 216, 480 miles, enough to circle the globe at the equator nearly ten times over.
The Patrol investigated 281 crashes in Hill County last year, including two that were fatal.
On June 9, Pat Wayne Austin, 47, of Havre was killed in a motorcycle wreck in Beaver Creek Park after camping with his family. Sybil Sangrey-Colliflower, 49, of Rocky Boy, was killed Nov. 29 in a crash along Laredo Road on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.