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County leads state in traffic fatalities

Posted 4/10/13 (Wed)

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

The deadliest roads in North Dakota so far this year are in McKenzie County. In the first three months of 2013, there have been 28 fatal crashes resulting in 31 fatalities in North Dakota. While a staggering statistic for all of North Dakota, what is surprising for McKenzie County is that seven of those crashes, roughly 25 percent, occurred in McKenzie County and resulted in nine fatalities, which is 30 percent of the traffic fatalities in the state.
With McKenzie County leading the state in fatal crashes and traffic fatalities, some area leaders are wondering if the improvements made by the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) on U.S. Highway 85 have been more harmful than helpful to area motorists.
“To see it in print that we have 30 percent of the state’s traffic fatalities says it all,” states Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford. “We know it feels more dangerous than other areas and we know the traffic has increased exponentially over the last few years.”
The next highest counties suffering traffic fatalities and fatal crashes are Stark and Williams counties, who are both tied at three fatal traffic crashes and three traffic fatalities. That is less than half of what McKenzie County has seen since the start of 2013.
According to Jamie Olson, NDDOT Communication Division representative, from 2010 to 2012, North Dakota’s state highways saw a 22 percent increase in traffic statewide, while western North Dakota saw a 53 percent increase.
Last year, U.S. Highway 85 west of Watford City averaged 11,051 vehicles per day, while in 2006 the average was 2,322.  
“The NDDOT is working hard to enhance the state’s transportation system and the state is dedicating a lot of resources to enhance safety on state highways,” states Olson. “The NDDOT is also working closely with the state’s 17 oil-producing counties, including McKenzie, on a new safety program for county roadways.”
Both the NDDOT and the North Dakota Highway Patrol (NDHP) are increasingly interested in promoting safety on the state roadways by stressing patience, driving for what the traffic and road conditions allow, not drinking and driving, and employing the use of seat belts for all vehicle occupants. But according to Sgt. Tom Iverson of the NDHP, that will only go so far.
“McKenzie County seems to be a hotbed for fatal crashes,” states Iverson. “There is a large amount of traffic in the area and people are not used to it. We can do our best to enforce the state’s traffic law. But when people do not comply, there is only so much we can do.”
Olson states that 55 percent of the fatalities in McKenzie County were from persons not wearing their seat belts, and though the lab results are only in for the traffic fatalities occurring in January and February, 50 percent of the fatalities that occurred during that time were alcohol-related.
According to Olson, the NDDOT has also invested roughly $50 million to enhance the state’s transportation system.
“Approximately $50 million has been spent on U.S. Highway 85 between Watford City and Williston over the past two years,” states Olson. “That work has included adding 12 passing and climbing lanes, six in the northbound lane and six in the southbound lane.”
But it is these passing lanes that area leaders are questioning. They wonder whether or not they are enough and whether or not they are actually keeping area commuters safe on the portion of U.S. Highway 85 that passes through McKenzie County.
“Most of McKenzie County’s fatal crashes occur along Highway 85, from five miles south of Grassy Butte to just south of Williston,” states McKenzie County Sheriff Ron Rankin.
While the Sheriff’s Department agrees that motorists should practice safe and defensive driving tactics, they also feel that the addition of turning lanes to North Dakota highways would greatly help in reducing traffic accidents and fatal traffic crashes.
“The passing lanes can be confusing,” states Sheriff’s Deputy John Fulwider. “There are few marked areas for turning vehicles. So when a vehicle needs to turn off the highway and there are no turning lanes, they are not removed from the flow of traffic. Rather they block the flow of traffic. And if someone is not paying attention, they can get caught off-guard.”
Olson states that the NDDOT has added several turning lanes and realigned a number of curves to meet traffic needs in the area.
Additionally Senate Bill 2176, which was signed into law on Feb. 4, provided $720 million immediately for statewide highway road improvement projects, according to Olson.
“Thanks to Gov. Dalrymple and the state Legislature for fast-tracking legislation so that construction projects can begin at the onset of the 2013 construction season,” states Olson.
But leaders are still questioning whether it is enough.
“We know the state is in the process of planning to four-lane Highway 85 from Watford City to Williston, as well as constructing a bypass for Watford City,” states Sanford. “But my question is what is going to happen now. And what is happening this summer and what is going to happen next summer, as we wait for these highway improvements to be constructed?”
Sanford states that a crash/fatality study is being conducted by the state of North Dakota of the excessive crash areas across North Dakota.
“I am hopeful that solutions will come from the study that can be implemented immediately,” states Sanford, “and that those solutions start decreasing the level of fatal crashes that McKenzie County has seen since the oil boom began.”