GREAT FALLS — According to the Montana Highway Patrol’s weekly fatality report, there were 41 fatal crashes resulting in 45 deaths between Jan. 1, 2021, and March 15, 2021. Both of those numbers represent a stark increase from each of the past two years, which are also available on the fatality report for comparison.
In 2020, during that same time frame, there were 18 crashes and 22 deaths. In 2019, 16 crashes and 16 deaths. It should be noted that this data only represents fatal crashes that the Montana Highway Patrol responded to. To understand why that’s important, MTN News spoke with the Great Falls Police Department to understand what circumstances often dictate MHP’s involvement in a crash.
“If a crash involves a death or a fatality, we start looking at that a lot different,” explained Lt. Doug Otto. “Obviously, we start getting more people involved, our investigations, folks will come out to begin the investigation of a death, as well as we call in Montana Highway Patrol and the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office to assist. The Sheriff’s Office, they’re fully responsible on the coroner's side on a death. Highway Patrol have the tools to be able to use with their total station mapping program, their drone that they can use to map the whole scene out for reconstruction purposes, for court purposes, and especially if we have a charge somewhere that’s going to go with that. There’s an important piece to make sure all of that is documented correctly and throughout.”
MTN News also took data from the Great Falls police crash database, provided by Otto, and compared it to the data from the Montana Highway Patrol. So far in 2021, Great Falls police have recorded 267 non-injury crashes and 59 injury crashes. In the same time frame in 2020, they recorded 226 non-injury crashes and 37 injury crashes, and in 2019 they recorded 458 non-injury crashes and 55 injury crashes. It was not immediately clear why the 2019 non-injury crash figure was so much higher, but it’s important to understand the context here.
The Great Falls numbers don’t distinguish between deaths and other injuries, while the highway patrol numbers not only come from all over the state, but they only represent crashes where highway patrol was present. On March 14, MTN reported five deaths over a span of 72 hours from crashes across the state. Three people died in a crash near Bigfork on March 6, two on March 5 in two separate crashes, another on March 2 in Missoula, and on and on. The unfortunate trend could be the result of a number of factors, says Lt. Otto.
“Taking a look at the locations is number one, because if it’s starting to occur in heavy locations on 10th Avenue South, we obviously have some issues specific with traffic violations that are going on at those locations,” he said, when asked how the police department examines trends to see if any spike in crashes might be related in anyway. “(We look at) if it’s weather-driven, I mean we get bad weather for long periods of time. We realize that weather is a contributing factor to it, but it’s also drivers being careless and not paying attention to the conditions of the roadways, so we have to take a look at a lot of the factors during periods of time when we break that down even more.”
MTN also tried to contact the Montana Highway Patrol for their analysis, but they have not yet responded to our request for comment. In late February, a 30+ car pile-up near Billings resulted in no deaths, only a handful of injuries, MHP troopers attributed that crash to slick roads caused by a snow flurry. They also told MTN that they were still investigating which vehicles lost control first and started the pile-up, but have not yet followed up with an update.
As for what law enforcement has to say to people when it comes to the increase in crashes and staying safe on the roadways, it mostly revolves around one action: slow down.
“We all are in a hurry. We’re in a society today where people are constantly on the go, we’re busy, we have things happening all the time,” said Otto. “Take those extra few minutes, slow down, prepare yourself and give yourself that amount of time you need to get there. If you’re frustrated, take about a 5-10 minute breather before you hop in the vehicle so you don’t get yourself in that frustrated state or a distracted state where you are driving and not paying attention to the roadway and being a defensive driver as well. Those are important pieces and a lot of times we see that and it’s an unfortunate thing when people get into that distracted state and an accident is caused.”