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Ratings: Montana ‘worst’ for drunk driving fatalities

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Posted at 10:16 AM, Apr 17, 2024

Montana is No. 1 in the nation for drunk driving fatalities, according to a new ranking by Forbes.

Recent data show fewer highway deaths related to impaired driving in 2022 compared to the previous year, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.

But a state report said Montana also hasn’t met its most recent goal of reducing the five-year rolling average of those fatalities, reports the Daily Montanan.

“Montana Department of Transportation is well aware of the challenges of impaired driving throughout Montana and the rest of the nation,” said Kevin Dusko, supervisor of the state highway traffic safety section of the department, in a phone call Tuesday.

“MDT takes the topic very seriously, and we provide a lot of resources — substantial resources — to mitigate impaired driving throughout Montana.”

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The recent Forbes rating said Montana ranks as the worst for drunk driving by two separate measures.

It said 8.57 drunk drivers are involved in fatal crashes for every 100,000 licensed drivers, and 7.14 people are killed in crashes involving a drunk driver for every 100,000 residents.

“Both are the highest in the nation,” Forbes said.

Neighboring South Dakota ranks as the No. 2 worst for drunk driving fatalities, and Wyoming and North Dakota rank as Nos. 4 and 5, respectively. Texas sits at No. 3.

The report cites data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the FBI and U.S. Department of Transportation.

Dusko said support the agency provides includes high visibility enforcement, treatment courts, education and media messaging, and even safety elements in highway construction projects, such as “rumble strips,” the bumpy stretches along shoulders that make a car vibrate.

As a rural state with a small population, Dusko said Montana families and emergency responders especially feel the effects of impaired driving crashes. He said MDT is grateful to them and other partners.

“People don’t realize how much trauma those emergency responders go through, showing up to a fatality,” Dusko said. “Those fatalities are not pleasant. They are graphic, and they do it day in, day out.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Montana had seen a slight dip in alcohol-related highway fatalities at least by total numbers, with 93 in 2013. It saw 56 in 2017; 80 in 2017; and 66 in 2019, according to national traffic safety data from MDT.

However, those deaths still made up at least roughly one-third of the total fatalities.

In 2020, the year the pandemic started, Montana saw 95 alcohol-related driving fatalities, or 45% of all fatal crashes, according to national data provided by MDT. It counted 102 the following year, or 43% of the total.

The total of fatal crashes that involved alcohol dropped to 71 in 2022, back to 33% of all those crashes.

Dusko said data from last year isn’t available yet. He also said he doesn’t like to blame COVID-19, but the pandemic undoubtedly affected Montana’s goal of reducing highway fatalities related to alcohol.

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A Montana Department of Transportation report called Vision Zero said the state’s goal is to reduce its five-year average of impaired-driving fatalities, but the target for the most recent period ending in 2021 was 73.6. It said Montana didn’t meet it, with an average of 80.

“For the department, this is a priority, to try to bring our numbers down,” Dusko said.

During the pandemic, he said substance use and mental health issues were possible factors in the increases, and speeding and tourism may play roles in the outcomes as well. Although the rankings from Forbes focus on alcohol, Dusko said seatbelt use always affects safety as well.

Even at 25 mph or slower, he said, a seatbelt improves safety; a person without a seatbelt might not die if they hit something at a slower speed, but they still might suffer a traumatic head injury.

Although also not counted in the recent ranking, Dusko said recreational marijuana affects drivers as well, and many crashes involve both alcohol and other drugs. However, he said there isn’t wide agreement on how to measure impaired driving related to marijuana compared to alcohol.

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He said alcohol’s wide availability is the elephant in the room.

“I don’t want to demonize alcohol because the majority of individuals use it responsibly, but it is definitely a contributing factor,” he said.

A 2023 report from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services said alcohol-related crashes kill 29 people in the country every day and cost $44 billion a year.

“Driving under the influence of alcohol can be especially dangerous for youth, who have less driving experience than adults,” said the report, called Public Health In the 406. “In 2021, 7% of Montana high school students and 22% of Montana college students reported driving after drinking alcohol.”

Data from MDT show Yellowstone, Big Horn, Flathead and Missoula counties are the worst for percentage of roadway fatalities that involve alcohol in Montana. Dusko said the department takes a data-driven approach in providing resources and is working from the director’s office to “boots on the ground” to decrease the deaths.

“We do have all hands on deck here trying to mitigate,” Dusko said.

Click here for the MDT Vision Zero website.