Mike Zufelt of the Montana Highway Patrol can no longer light a campfire without experiencing flashbacks to a fiery crash that killed six people, including three children, in 2014 near Helena.
Tracie Kiesel of Helena still breaks down every time her 8-year-old grandson asks about his mom, who died in a 2010 rollover outside of Lincoln when he was just 11 months old.
MHP Captain Chad Dever credits the stress of law enforcement for his uncle’s fatal heart attack at age 62, noting “Our statistics on heat attacks and dying young are startling.”
Like a drop in the water, every fatal crash has a ripple effect on countless people including witnesses, emergency responders, hospital staff, family members, friends and coworkers.
And statistics show they are all too common in our area.
Car crashes have consistently been the fourth leading cause of death in Montana year after year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Montana Department of Justice Records show 77 people died in 63 crashes in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater counties from 2013-2017 alone.
Granted, some of those fatal crashes were unavoidable chance circumstances that no precautions could have prevented. But the data show that many of those killed declined to take simple steps that could have saved their life and spared the people around them from living with that trauma for the rest of theirs.
We all know that drinking and driving is both illegal and dangerous, but the number of fatal crashes involving drugs or alcohol is startling. The DOJ statistics show drugs or alcohol were involved in 34 of the 63 crashes over the five-year period, which comes out to about 54 percent.
And while failing to wear a seat belt may not cause a car crash, it is frequently the reason people get killed. Of the 62 people who died in vehicles equipped with seat belts over the five-year period, 33 were either not wearing one or wearing one incorrectly, which comes out to about 53 percent.
Our takeaway? Up to half of the fatal crashes and traffic deaths in our area could be prevented if everyone would drive sober and buckle up.
With several taxi companies as well as Uber and Lyft all available in the Helena area, there is no reason for people who are impaired to get behind the wheel. Nor is there any reason for people to not use the seat belts in vehicles equipped with them.
While all of this might seem like common sense, the prevalence of those who continue driving impaired or without a seat belt suggests that we all need to be reminded how to stay safe on the road.
If you won’t do it for yourself, please, do it for those who must live with the consequences of your decisions.
This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board.