The Montana Highway Patrol's annual report for 2020 shows an increase in fatal crashes statewide but an overall decrease in calls for service.
Statewide crashes were down from 22,939 in 2019 to 20,803 in 2020. However, fatal crashes were up from 166 to 190. Of those total crashes, 6,972 occurred on primary highways, the largest group by all margins. The second highest occurrence of crashes occurred on interstate highways at 5,567. Of the 190 fatal crashes, 76 occurred on primary highways and 42 happened on interstate highways.
According to MHP, the majority of fatal crashes occurred on Saturdays, with a total of 43. The worst month for fatal crashes was June, with a total of 31. Of the 190 fatal crashes, 97 occurred during daylight and 155 occurred during dry weather. Pickup trucks led the fatal crash statistics, with a total of 82. The largest single cause of fatal crashes was determined to be exiting the roadway, with a total of 110. Males between the ages of 25 and 64 made up the majority of fatal crash victims, with a total of 95.
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MHP Sgt. Jay Nelson said many of the fatalities occurred because the driver over-corrected to get back on the road.
"It's the over-correcting that is the true culprit," he said. "My advice would be don't slam on the brakes and don't jerk the wheel to one side."
Nelson said there are likely two reasons that pickups were involved in most of the fatal crashes.
"It's Montana. There are a lot of pickups on the road in general," he said, adding that the lack of weight in the back of a pickup can cause drivers to lose control more often.
For non-fatal crashes, passenger cars, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks were the most common type of vehicle involved. Approximately 48% of all non-fatal crashes were single-vehicle crashes, and inattentive or distracted driving was the most common cause, with a total of 6,550. The second-highest cause was exiting the roadway, with a total of 3,925.
Drug arrests by the MHP were up statewide, from 156 in 2019 to 227 in 2020. Meth was the primary contributing factor, with arrests up from 103 to 135. The total amount of meth seized by MHP went up from 75.63 pounds in 2019 to 96.17 pounds in 2020. Marijuana arrests were up from 23 to 48, with the amount seized going from 442.67 pounds to 995.59 pounds. The third highest number of drug arrests was for heroin, which rose from 11 arrests to 27 arrests. However, the amount of heroin seized was still less than a single pound.
All types of citations during traffic stops were down in 2020.
Lewis and Clark County rests in MHP District 3, along with Powell, Granite, Jefferson, Deer Lodge, Silver Bow and Beaverhead counties. According to MHP's numbers, there is a population of 143,178 in this area. Uniformed positions in the district went up in 2020 from 31 to 32. Calls for service in the district went down from 22,221 to 21,647. Citizen assists also decreased from 2,643 to 2,454. Crashes investigated in the district went down from 1,917 to 1,795. Traffic stops were also down from 10,232 to 8,388 and citations decreased from 8,775 to 7,860.
In Lewis and Clark County, MHP responded to a total of 1,183 crashes in 2020. Five of those crashes were fatal, 286 resulted in injury and 892 property damage crashes occurred. All of these numbers are down from 2019, when the county saw 1,757 crashes, six fatals, 352 injury crashes and 1,399 property damage crashes. Jefferson County experienced fewer overall crashes with 414, but more fatal crashes totaling 8. In Jefferson, there were 84 injury crashes and 322 property damage crashes. In 2019, Jefferson saw 402 total crashes, three fatal crashes, 84 injury crashes and 315 property damage crashes.
In Broadwater County, which rests in district 7, MHP responded to 165 total crashes in 2020, three of which were fatal. Broadwater saw a total of 30 injury crashes and 132 property damage crashes. In 2019, the county saw 149 crashes, one fatal crash, 30 injury crashes and 118 property damage crashes.
The largest number of crashes in a single county was Yellowstone County, which had a total of 3,263 crashes and 14 fatal crashes. The largest number of fatal crashes occurred in Flathead County, with 19 fatal crashes and 2,288 crashes total.
According to Nelson, across the state the MHP saw a lot more single-vehicle crashes in 2020. They also saw an increase in lack of seat belt use, excessive speed and alcohol use. According to Nelson, the lack of seat belts causes many crashes to be fatal, primarily due to drivers or passengers being ejected from the vehicle.
"If people stay inside the vehicle due to a seat belt their chance of surviving drastically increases," Nelson said. "We saw so many crashes last year where the person would have survived if they had stayed in the vehicle."