Here's the top three highway safety recommendations from Montana Highway Patrol Col. Tom Butler:
"Seat belts. Seat belts. Seat belts," the patrol chief told The Gazette by phone as one of the last summer travel weekends approached. "If everyone would take the extra 10 seconds to use a seat belt, numerous lives would be saved."
With 124 traffic deaths reported so far this year, including 96 passenger vehicle occupants, the data supports Butler's advice. Lack of seat belt use is suspected to be a factor in 54 deaths, according to MHP. Lack of seat belt use is more common in highway deaths than alcohol use, drug use or excessive speed.
"There's such compelling data," Butler said. "If you look at a car that's been in a crash, the passenger compartment usually is intact. Car manufacturers have designed the passenger compartment for safety. If you stay in your vehicle, you are much less likely to be injured."
Summer is the deadliest season on Montana roads as drivers tend to go faster and farther. The weather is nice; the pavement is dry, so we aren't as safety conscious as when the roads are slippery and snow packed.
It is also the time when millions of out-of-state visitors vacation here. However, most victims and most drivers are Montanans. Among 111 fatal crashes so far this year, only 27 involved an out-of-state vehicle. Most of the people killed on our roads died during daylight hours (86) and when roads were dry (100). As of Friday, 18 motorcyclists, nine pedestrians, three ATV users and one bicyclist were among the traffic fatalities of 2017.
Montana can do much better. Observational surveys indicate that 76 percent of Montana drivers and front-seat passengers use seat belts, compared with 86 percent nationally, according to the National Occupant Protection Survey.
That 10-percentage-point difference in seat belt use is reflected in the higher death rate for motor vehicle occupants in Montana. Nationally, the motor vehicle crash death rate for males is 9.4 fatalities per 100,000 population per year, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. In Montana, the rate is 21.9 — more than double the national rate.
For females, the national traffic death rate is 4.7, compared with 10.9 for in Montana.
Montanans ages 21-34 are the age group most likely to die in a vehicle crash. Nationally, that age group has a vehicle crash fatality rate of 10.8. In Montana these young adults are nearly three times more likely to die in a crash. The state rate is 29.6 deaths per 100,000 people this age group.
The Montana Highway Patrol will have extra patrols working over Labor Day weekend. But drivers have the primary responsibility for keeping themselves and their passengers safe. Don't start your vehicle till all occupants are properly buckled up. Don't become a fatality statistic.