September 22, 2015

County leads state in motor vehicle fatalities

By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer

With 13 motor vehicle fatalities as of Sept. 18, McKenzie County is once again leading the state of North Dakota in the number of traffic-related deaths. At this same time in 2014, McKenzie County had 13 fatal motor vehicle crashes resulting in 14 fatalities, and in 2013 at this time, McKenzie County had 13 fatal motor vehicle crashes resulting in 15 fatalities.
“McKenzie County currently has 13 motor vehicle fatalities, along with Williams county with the same number,” said Karin Mongeon, Safety Division director with the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT). “These two counties have the highest number of motor vehicle fatalities in the state at this point in 2015.”
According to Mongeon, since 2008, traffic has increased 427 percent in McKenzie County. And she equates the biggest factor of these motor vehicle fatalities to driver and passenger behavior, not the roads or the number of vehicles on the road.
“Crashes resulting in fatalities in North Dakota are nearly always due to driver and passenger behavior, not the roads or the number of vehicles on the road,” states Mongeon. “This is also true in McKenzie County. Fatalities can be reduced if motorists consistently follow all the traffic laws. This includes following speed limits, driving distraction-free, always wearing seat belts, and driving sober.”
According to Warren Jarland, Watford City Fire Department assistant chief, there are several factors he feels lead to the motor vehicle accidents in McKenzie County. He says people are in too big of a hurry, they drive too fast, and they pass when they shouldn’t be passing. He also says motorists follow too closely, not giving either vehicle enough reaction time, should something cause slowed or stopped traffic.
“There is a lot of truck traffic on the roadways, and people don’t realize truck drivers lack the control to slow or stop like passenger vehicles do,” stated Jarland. “Our highways have definitely improved, but some roadways are still in need of improvements. People need to slow down, be aware of their surroundings, and who they are sharing the road with. They need to be alert and remove any and all distractions while behind the wheel.”
Mongeon says that the NDDOT and traffic safety partners work continually to increase public awareness of traffic safety. The NDDOT provides grants to law enforcement agencies throughout the state (state, county, and city) who qualify to conduct overtime enforcement of seat belt, impaired driving, and distracted driving laws. Mongeon adds that overtime enforcement is coupled with extensive media and outreach to make the public aware of these topics as traffic safety problems and of stepped up enforcement during enforcement periods.
“The NDDOT has also worked with all 53 counties, 12 cities, and four tribes on the Local Road Safety Program,” said Mongeon. “The program was started as a way to implement low-cost safety enhancements to local roads, as nearly 50 percent of fatal crashes take place on the local road system.”
In addition to working with local officials on roadway enhancements, the NDDOT has worked extensively on enhancing the roadway system to meet traffic demand in western North Dakota. The state invested approximately $1.5 billion on state and county roadways in western North Dakota during the 2013-2015 biennium, with approximately $1.36 billion also invested for western North Dakota roadways in the 2015-2017 biennium.
The NDDOT and community partners conduct extensive media and outreach activities to reach the public with messages that seat belts save lives, and to always driver sober and distraction-free.
“I think the biggest contributing factor to these motor vehicle fatalities is alcohol and drug abuse,” said McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger. “People are not driving defensively. For example, I pulled over a working mother the other day with six kids in her vehicle. One of those kids was without a car seat. And another lady I pulled over was distracted by her cell phone. This is not a common sense approach to driving safely.”
According to the NDDOT, to date in 2015, nearly 25 percent of motor vehicle fatalities in McKenzie County were alcohol-related. And approximately 50 percent of the accident victims were not wearing their seat belt.
Of the 13 fatalities in McKenzie County to date in 2015, five of the victims were belted, six were unbelted, two were unknown if seat belts were being worn, and three were alcohol-related.
Exceeding the speed limit/driving too fast for conditions, inappropriate passing, failure to yield or stop, and distracted driving are also leading causes for motor vehicle accidents on state and county roads in McKenzie County.
“We live in a fast-paced world here,” said Karolin Jappe, McKenzie County Emergency manager. “People work hard, they miss their families, and they’re tired. And with not a lot to do here, people drink. They put in some long hours, and when they just want to let loose, people don’t always think straight or make the best decisions, like not putting on a seat belt. We get people too, that have never been around snow.”
As part of their program to improve traffic safety in McKenzie County, the NDDOT currently has a paving and widening project on N.D. Highway 23 from 7th Street in Watford City to the junction of 1806, and a paving, widening, and roundabout project on N.D. Highway 23 from one mile east of the junction of 1806 to the N.D. Highway 73 (Johnson Corners) intersection. And lastly, they have a widening, paving, and climbing lane project on N.D. Highway 23 east of Watford City from the junction of N.D. Highway 73 (Johnson Corners) north to near the junction of N.D. Highway 22.
“Work is continuing on the U.S. Highway 85 four-lane from McKenzie County Road 16 to Williston,” says Mongeon. “We have also installed a traffic signal at the intersection of the Watford City South Business Route (U.S. Highway 85B) and N.D. Highway 23 south of Watford City, and at the intersection of U.S. Highway 85 and N.D. Highway 68 near Alexander.”
 According to Mongeon, the NDDOT is also working on a slide repair project on Highway 85 from two miles south to one mile north of the Long X Bridge.”
Jappe says she is very grateful for what the NDDOT has done so far on the roadways in McKenzie County. She does, however, have concerns with the middle lane of U.S. Highway 85 and hopes that it can be addressed sometime in the near future.
“I think the four-lane expansion has been great for the flow of traffic,” stated Schwartzenberger. “It’s people not being responsible that is causing the accidents. A vehicle is a weapon and people need to be responsible drivers. You can make your own choices, but you can’t choose your consequences. Make good choices, drive defensively, and drive responsibly and within the parameters of the law.”
Mongeon says the factors involved in motor vehicle fatalities in McKenzie County are preventable. She says fatalities can be reduced if motorists consistently follow all the traffic laws including following the speed limits, driving distraction-free, always wearing seat belts, and driving sober.
The NDDOT recently launched the Crash Memorial Wall on a web page for family members to create memorials of those lost in motor vehicle crashes in North Dakota, with the hope that sharing these stories will offer comfort to families and friends, and will be an educational opportunity for viewers to help prevent future tragedies.