Posted 1/22/14 (Wed)
By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer
For the past two years, McKenzie County has led North Dakota in the number of traffic fatalities. In 2012, the county accounted for 25 percent of the state’s fatalities. And while that percentage dropped to 16 percent in 2013, there are still too many fatalities to be considered acceptable for the state and for McKenzie County.
According to Sgt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol (NDHP), North Dakota finished out 2013 with 136 fatal crashes that resulted in 149 deaths. That number is down from 2012, which had 147 fatal crashes resulting in 170 deaths.
“Two years ago, 2012, was a record year for fatalities,” states Iverson. “So it is good that 2013’s numbers were down. But it is definitely still not where we want them to be.”
Though counts are down around the state, McKenzie County, in contrast, finished out the year with a greater number of fatal crashes than the previous year. In 2013, McKenzie County had 22 fatal crashes that resulted in 24 deaths. In 2012, the county had 17 fatal crashes and 18 deaths.
Though McKenzie County’s percentage dropped to 16 percent of the state’s total traffic fatalities in 2013, it is still the leading county for traffic fatalities in North Dakota. Williams County is one behind McKenzie County at 21 fatal crashes and Ward County is third with 16.
Iverson states that it is too soon to tell whether the road improvements made to U.S. Highway 85 and other highways have made a difference in McKenzie County’s traffic statistics. But regardless of whether or not they have, Iverson stresses that people have more control than they realize with regard to traffic safety.
“If we can start cutting down on alcohol-related fatalities, that will help to decrease our numbers, as will making sure people are wearing their seat belts,” states Iverson.
Iverson states that those are two things that are easily preventable, and yet nine of McKenzie County’s fatal crashes in 2013 were alcohol-related, or roughly 40 percent. In addition, in 10 of the county’s 22 fatal crashes, people were not wearing a seat belt, which is around 45 percent.
Jamie Olson, of the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) echoes Iverson in saying that though traffic statistics fluctuate from year to year, one trend the NDDOT continues to see from year to year is the correlation between alcohol and fatalities and not wearing seat belts and fatalities.
“We also see a lot of fatal crashes because people become impatient and pass unsafely,” states Iverson. “People need to leave early and be willing to give themselves more time on the road to arrive safely,” states Iverson.
That is especially true when, according to Iverson, there is so much semi traffic, oil activity, and construction occurring on McKenzie County’s roads. Iverson states that 13 of McKenzie County’s fatal crashes involved a commercial motor vehicle. Not that it was at fault, but that it was involved.
“That is why it is so important that people pay attention while they are driving,” states Iverson. “They need to make sure they are not committing right-of-way violations and they are passing safely.”
On Feb. 4, 2013, to help with the state’s increasing traffic issues, the North Dakota State Legislature signed into law a bill that would immediately provide $620 million for roadway projects on state highways in western North Dakota.
“This money was designated by the Governor and state Legislature to ‘fast-track’ legislation so that construction projects could begin at the onset of the 2013 construction season,” states Olson.
To date, the NDDOT has added turning lanes to U.S. Highway 85 and begun four-lane work on U.S. Highway 85 between Watford City and Williston. They have also fast-tracked the N.D. Highway 23 bypass project around Watford City, and started moving the ground for that project last fall.
The Watford City Bypass project will be completed in two phases, the first of which is slated for completion in the fall of 2014, and the second phase, which was scheduled for completion the following year, 2015, will now be completed ahead of schedule.
According to Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford, the NDDOT has moved the timing of the Phase II portion of the bypass project up, so it will now be completed in 2014 instead of 2015. A fact which Sanford refers to as “welcomed news.”
In addition to four-lane work on U.S. Highway 85 and the Watford City Bypass project, the NDDOT is also planning to begin constructing a bypass around the city of Alexander in 2015.
“Since these projects are not finished yet, it is hard to say what impact they will have on reducing fatalities,” states Olson.
The hope, according to both Iverson and Olson, however, is that they will have a positive impact.