Deadly trend on N.D. roadsLast week North Dakota officials raised the official 2012 death toll on the state’s roads by one, to 170.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, The Jamestown Sun
Last week North Dakota officials raised the official 2012 death toll on the state’s roads by one, to 170.
A woman injured in late December in a traffic accident died Jan. 11, said Mark Nelson, safety director for the Department of Transportation.
That’s the most people killed in traffic accidents in the state since 1978, when the toll was 185.
But of course, the state has more people than ever, a total of 699,600, Census officials estimated last year.
The added population and the reason most arrived — the oil boom out West — have driven up the number of vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, in the state to a record 9.16 billion in 2011, the latest figures available, according to the DOT. That’s a 10.3 percent increase in just one year, from 2010, and 30 percent more than the 7.06 billion miles driven in 2000.
So are the state’s roads less safe than before? Or is the rise in traffic deaths what is to be expected from the increased population and miles driven?
According to the National Motorists Association, two key numbers give a good idea about highway safety, better than just quoting the number of people killed on the roads.
The traffic fatality rate measures how many people die for every 100 million miles driven.
Because the number of people killed in accidents can vary, another figure, the fatal accident rate — the number of crashes involving fatalities per 100 million miles — is an even better measure of highway safety, said Nelson, echoing what the Motorists Association reports.
But he said it’s important to remember it’s about the people, not just statistics.
“We know we are seeing fatality count going up,” said Nelson, retired from a career in the Highway Patrol. “It went from 104 in 2010 to 148 in 2011 to 170 last year. That’s not acceptable. A large number of those are occurring in places where we have not had that level of fatalities in the past, which is the northwest part of the state.”
Of course, that’s where added miles and people are showing up, too.
The long-term story in highway safety is that across America, even as people drive more, it steadily has improved for nearly a century, mostly because vehicles and roads kept improving.
In 1921, 24 people died in crashes for every 100 million miles driven, according to federal highway statistics; through the 1960s, the rate fell from 5.1 to 4.7. In 2011, the national fatality rate fell to a record low of 1.08.
But North Dakota’s traffic fatality rate — after falling steadily for decades like other states — has been rising for more than a decade, even more steeply since the Bakken oil boom began in 2007.
Like many statistics in low-population North Dakota, the fatality rate, as well as the actual fatality totals, can swing up and down from year to year.
By taking five-year averages, a clearer trend can be seen.
According to the DOT’s numbers, the number of fatal accidents and the number of traffic fatalities increased more than the number of miles driven in the state over the past decade plus.
Fatal crashes: In 2000-2004, the annual average was 90 crashes; in 2007-2011, it was 106, an 18 percent increase.
Fatalities: In 2000-2004, the annual average was 98.6 deaths; in 2007-2011, it was 121.6, a 23.3 percent increase.
VMT: In 2000-2004, the annual average was 7.2 billion miles; in 2007-2011, it was 8.1 billion, a 12.5 percent increase.
Traffic fatality rate: In 2000-2004, the annual average was 1.37 deaths per 100 million miles traveled; in 2007-2011, it was 1.49. In 2011 alone, North Dakota’s fatality rate was 52 points higher than the nation’s record low of 1.08.
Fatal accident rate: In 2000-2004, the annual average was 1.25 deadly accidents per 100 million miles traveled; in 2007-2011, it was 1.3.
For what it’s worth, the state’s population increased 6.7 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to Census estimates.
The DOT breaks down the numbers even more, and Nelson sees clear lessons: North Dakota drivers in fatal crashes use seat belts much less frequently than drivers nationally, and use alcohol much more often, in 51 percent of the fatal crashes, versus 31 percent nationally.
“We are bucking a trend we see nationwide,” he said.
Sgt. Tom Iverson, new safety and education director for the Highway Patrol, was a trooper out on the road until August, getting a first-hand look at the effects of the state’s rising fatality rate.
“It’s discouraging to us in law enforcement,” he said. “We are out there, working hard. We did 1,910 DUI stops last year. So we are out there being pro-active.”
The patrol’s plan to add 15 new troopers, if the Legislature concurs, will bring needed help, he said.
“More and more we are in the reactive approach. We have lots of calls for service, whether it’s something on the roadway, a stalled vehicle or a crash. A fatal crash is very manpower-intensive. It pulls our officers away from core functions of law enforcement, from working on speeding or looking for DUIs. We are working more overtime. The work also increasingly involves a larger amount of the use of force, when weapons are drawn,” Iverson said.
It’s difficult to parse out exactly how much the oil boom has contributed to rising traffic fatalities, he said. Oil companies generally do a good job training workers to drive safely, since it’s in their interest, too, he said.
Still, he said, “I think the Oil Patch has affected the entire state.”
There have been improvements, say oil industry leaders.
Joe Rothschiller, president and chief operating officer at Steffes Corp., has a good vantage point on the traffic issue.
The headquarters for the maker of oil-field storage tanks is 5 miles north of Dickinson, N.D., on state Highway 22, one of the busiest roads in the Oil Patch.
“We have an influx of people going where the infrastructure and roads were not built to handle that traffic,” Rothschiller said. “And many of the people coming are not aware of all the travel conditions in North Dakota. It’s not so much the snow that gets them, it’s the ‘black ice.’”
And the roads have also gotten better, as well.
“We just got a four-lane highway built going by us, which alleviates a lot of the congestion,” he said of Highway 22, which heads north into the Oil Patch. “I don’t see as many impatient drivers as you do on a two-lane road, or people passing on the side of the road.”
Nelson said his career enforcing traffic laws in the Highway Patrol — including years in Grand Forks — convinced him more troopers driving the roads can improve things.
“The vast majority of crashes we see, it’s behavioral issues,” he said. “It’s poor decisions being made by drivers, whether drinking alcohol or passing where they shouldn’t be passing or not wearing seat belts.”
“Even with the increase in traffic and population, they need to take precautions,” he said. “If we sit back and say this is acceptable, that would be really frustrating to me. I don’t think it is acceptable to lose 170 people when it’s driving behaviors people can control.”