By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Alcohol was more likely to contribute to automobile crashes in Hill and Blaine counties than in Montana as a whole last year, according to state officials.
And while the Montana Highway Patrol's annual report said statewide seat belt use continued to inch upward in 2003, a Montana Department of Transportation official said seat belt use in Havre and other rural areas continues to lag behind that in larger Montana cities.
Jack Williams, research and evaluation supervisor for the MDT's state Traffic Safety Office, said Blaine and Hill counties both had higher rates of alcohol involvement than the statewide average.
Alcohol was a factor in 2,173 crashes out of a total of 23,160 crashes reported in Montana in 2003, or just over 9 percent, according to MHP data studied by Williams. The statistic is based on the number of wrecks in which a driver or a pedestrian involved had a measureable blood-alcohol content, he said.
In Hill County, alcohol was a factor in 49 of 388 crashes in 2003 - about 13 percent - while in Blaine County it accounted for 13 of 92 crashes - just over 14 percent. In Liberty County, one crash out of the 18 in 2003 was alcohol-related - about 6 percent. In Chouteau County last year, 11 of the 77 crashes in 2003 - 14 percent - were alcohol-related.
Lt. Col. Mike Tooley, deputy chief of the Montana Highway Patrol, said drugs and alcohol were the fifth most common contributing factor to crashes in the three-county area, after inattentive driving, driving too fast for conditions, careless driving, and failure to yield the right of way. Drugs and alcohol were also the fifth most common contributing factor to crashes in Montana as a whole.
Statewide, about 39 percent of the state's 239 fatal crashes last year involved alcohol. Of the seven fatal crashes in Hill, Blaine and Liberty counties last year, alcohol was involved in two.
Sgt. Mark Bosch, detachment commander for the Havre area, said that although he didn't have statistics on alcohol involvement in local crashes, he thought it was probably higher than some other parts of the state.
"It probably is, in our area, because we do seem to have an alcohol and drinking problem up here," Bosch said.
Williams said rural counties often have a higher rate of alcohol-related crashes than the counties where Montana's largest cities are located.
There are two theories as to why that is, he said. One is that bigger towns get more fender benders, which statistically "washes out" the crashes in which alcohol is involved.
The other, he said, is that people in rural counties actually are driving drunk more often. "In smaller towns people spend a little more time in bars," Williams said.
Another factor that can be taken into account, he said, is the presence of Indian reservations. In 2002, Williams said, about 65 percent of traffic fatalities involving Native Americans were alcohol-related, compared with about 36 percent of traffic fatalities for Montana as a whole.
In 2002, the last year for which data was available, Montana had the highest rate of alcohol-related fatalities in the country, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Montana had 1.22 alcohol-related fatalities per 100 million miles of travel. The second-highest rate was South Carolina, with 1.17 fatalities. Utah had the lowest rate, with 0.3 fatalities per 100 million miles.
The 2003 state Legislature proposed a package of laws to crack down on drunken driving. Measures to lower Montana's blood-alcohol limit for driving and to increase fines for driving under the influence passed, but a bill to outlaw open containers in vehicles statewide stalled in the House Judiciary Committee after being approved by the Senate.
The Highway Patrol report said people who don't wear seat belts are at a significantly higher risk of being killed in crashes, and Williams said that people in small towns like Havre usually don't buckle up enough.
People were not wearing seat belts in about 67 percent of all traffic deaths last year, the Highway Patrol report said.
People who are ejected during a crash as a result of not wearing a seat belt is "a major cause" of fatalities, Bosch said.
In Montana, he said, officers can't pull over drivers who are not wearing seat belts. Seat belt citations are considered a "secondary stop," he said, so someone must be stopped for something else - like speeding, registration violations, or running a stop sign - before he or she can be given a $20 ticket for not wearing a seat belt.
That may change in the future, Bosch said, because the federal government would like to require states to make seat belt violations a "primary stop."
"The feds are pushing to have all states make it a primary stop or they'll threaten our highway funding," he said.
Even without that requirement, the number of tickets the Highway Patrol issued for seat belt violations jumped by 25 percent in 2003, from about 9,360 the year before to about 14,600, according to the report.
That was in spite of the fact that statewide, patrol officers drove 10 percent fewer miles in 2003 than the previous year and made about 5,500 fewer traffic stops, largely because seven officers were called up for military duty last year.
Tooley said the increase in seat belt citations was not the result of a change in policy, and might have had more to do with a cultural shift as young officers join the patrol.
"I think it might be an increase in the number of young officers that are in tune to that," he said.
Williams said that Havre's seat belt usage is about 40 percent. That's about average for rural areas and small towns, but lower than bigger cities like Billings, where seat belt use is about 60 percent, he said. Seat belt usage on the interstates is usually above 90 percent, and on other highways it runs between 80 and 85 percent, he said.
"People wear their belts based on risk a lot, and they may not perceive risk in a small town. But you can still get killed in those small places," Williams said, adding that local law enforcement in Havre writes a "reasonable number" of seat belt citations.
According to the Highway Patrol report, seat belt use in Montana rose slightly to about 80 percent this year. It has steadily increased every year since 1999, when it was at 74 percent, the report said.
In 2003 Montana ranked 20th in the United States for seat belt usage, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Among states in which seat belt violations are a secondary traffic stop, Montana was fourth in seat belt usage.