It's one for the record books, but a record that nobody wants.
The year 2009 will go down in history as one of the deadliest ever on North Dakota highways. As of Nov. 30, 133 people have died this year on the state's roads, already an increase of nearly 28 percent over 2008 with a month left to go. In 2007, 111 people were killed in accidents, seven more than 2008.
Alcohol, long acknowledged as a dangerous combination with driving, was involved in 40 percent of the crashes thus far in 2009, with 53 fatalities being alcohol-related. Lack of seat belt usage also played a major role, with 81 of the 111 applicable deaths being unbelted or having unknown belt status at the time of the crash.
Dave Caldwell/MDN •
Scenes similar to this have been far too common in 2009, with a near-record number of fatalities on North Dakota highways. Fortunately, this crash did not involve serious injuries, and there was no evidence that any type of driver distraction was involved.
Those numbers, unfortunately, still have time to increase with the holiday travel season fast approaching and more than two weeks remaining in 2009.
Although drinking and driving remains a major issue in crashes, authorities are seeing a new, troubling trend emerging an increase in the number of "distracted drivers."
Distracted driving can be caused by people eating, putting on makeup or most any other activity that involves sharing the driver's attention with the road. Advances in technology have provided a wealth of instantly accessible information at a user's fingertips, but when a driver uses a personal electronic device while driving, the results have the potential to be disastrous.
There are four North Dakota Highway Patrol districts, with almost all of the new oil activity located in the Northwest Region.
Capt. Gary Orluck is commander of the Northwest District of the North Dakota Highway Patrol.
"We've had a lot of multiple-fatality crashes," Orluck said. "That's really affected this region's numbers."
Orluck said many crashes have been head-on or "T-bone" type crashes, and many of those could very well go back to distracted driving issues.
Incidents included a tired driver who drifted into the path of an oncoming truck, and a distracted driver who hit the rear of a truck they did not realize had come to a stop in the roadway while waiting to make a turn.
As of Thursday, there were 36 fatal crashes in the Northwest District, with 49 people killed. Of those, 14 crashes were alcohol-related (39 percent), with 21 people killed (43 percent).
"With that percentage, it's not like alcohol is the overriding factor," Orluck said. "But obviously, 43 percent is too high, and we're working on overtime programs to combat that."
When it's all said and done, though, Orluck said the bottom line is seat belt usage.
"In the Northwest Region, 63 percent of the fatalities were not belted," he said. "That's the biggest factor, especially in rollovers. If we could get people to wear their seat belts, we would see both the number of fatal crashes and the total fatalities drop."
Oil activity leads to accident increase
Capt. Gary Orluck, commander of the Northwest District of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, said that the patrol began to beef up its presence this past summer in an area called "the golden triangle" the oil-activity-heavy area between Watford City, Stanley and Parshall.
"We asked for some overtime to increase our presence by a big percentage," Orluck said. The main objective is enforcement of motor carrier regulations in the area.
"We started that in October, and we've seen that has helped," he said.
Orluck said that compared to the last "oil boom," the difference between the quality of personnel driving trucks for the oil companies is night and day.
"The companies are being very selective," he said. "A lot of these are federal safety programs that are in place, and if you drive what is considered a commercial vehicle you have to follow certain mandates."
The overall pool of drivers during the current "boom" is of a higher, more professional caliber overall, he said.
"We're not seeing the issues with DUIs and drunk driving with truck drivers," Orluck said. "Not to say that it doesn't happen obviously in a pool of any size, you're going to have that 5, 10 percent that are maybe one way or the other."
In fact, in crashes involving an oil-related vehicle, it is far more common for the "other" driver to be at fault.
"I'm not going to place blame for the increase in fatalities on trucking or the oil activity," Orluck said. "When you get more vehicles using the same stretch of highway more often, you're going to have incidents that happen.
"In our experience, we find a lot more mistakes by passenger-car drivers creating these crashes. I think impatience comes into play. When that truck isn't accelerating as fast as your Honda Accord is, the temptation is to get out and pass."
It's the law
States, districts and territories banning text messaging by drivers:
Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Guam, Illinois (begins January 2010), Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire (begins January 2010), New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon (begins January 2010), Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington.
All drivers are prohibited from talking on hand-held cell phones in:
California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois (school or highway construction zones), New Jersey, New Mexico (in state vehicles), New York, Oregon (begins January 2010), Utah (part of careless driving law), Virgin Islands, Washington.
Source: Governors Highway Safety Administration, (www.ghsa.org).
Text messaging is becoming one of the main culprits.
Capt. Gary Orluck, the commander of the North Dakota Highway Patrol's Northwest District, said it's now common to witness drivers texting while behind the wheel.
"You see it when you're driving around town," Orluck said. "Obviously it's a little tougher to detect out in the country, but I'm not naive enough to think it doesn't happen out there as well."
Orluck said he is certain texting or cell phone usage is a contributing factor in many fatal accidents, but the exact percentages are impossible to nail down.
"It's hard to know for sure that the text was being read or being sent at the exact time of the crash, because it's very hard to pinpoint the time of the crash unless you have a witness that was able to call 9-1-1 immediately," he said. "But that hardly ever happens."
Texting might be the new "whipping boy" for placing blame on accident causes, but Orluck stresses that any number of factors can come into play with distracted driving. It would be just as easy for a person turning around to tend to their children in the back seat to run off the edge of the road, into other vehicles or into any object in the area of the highway.
"I don't want to single out texting as the cause of all these fatals or cell phone usage per se," Orluck said. "Distracted driving in general is an issue."
Even devices such as global positioning systems that are becoming more and more common in private vehicles can lead to a distraction.
"It comes down to personal responsibility for everybody to ensure that they are paying attention," Orluck said.
At 65 mph, a vehicle travels more than 95 feet per second. Most people would consider the idea of closing your eyes for five seconds while traveling at that speed to be ridiculous, but how many of those same people would read and begin to reply to a text message while driving? During that time, more than the length of a football field will be covered by the vehicle.
Numerous news sources have referenced an American Automobile Association (AAA) study that likens a driver's physical ability and reactions while texting to a person with a blood alcohol percentage of 0.08, the high end of the legal limit.
Car and Driver Magazine took it one step further, conducting a test where a driver traveling at 35 mph and 70 mph reacted to a red light on the dash by braking the vehicle. Subjects reading aloud a text message and texting back the identical message performed "far worse" than the same drivers after enough alcoholic beverages consumed to reach the legal limit, but without the texting distraction.
Orluck said he has heard that association before.
"You know, I don't disagree with that especially for those few seconds that you're distracted," he said, then quickly added that the same would be true with other forms of distraction as well.
"We've been behind drivers that we were sure were under the influence, because they were all over the road during the time we were behind them," Orluck said. "But when we pull them over, it turns out they were just tired, or talking to my friend, or something like that.
"We get that all the time."
People take driving for granted, because it's something they do every day, Orluck said. But too often, people are thinking about issues totally unrelated to steering a moving vehicle instead of focusing on the task at hand.
"Driving when you really think about it is a complex task," he said, encompassing concentration, hand-eye coordination and the physical ability to operate the vehicle. "You take away the biggest part of that concentration and everything else quickly begins to suffer as well."
Orluck said he has seen plenty of crashes that are one-vehicle rollovers in perfect weather in which too many people are ejected due to lack of seat belt usage.
"And I know a lot of that is due to some form of distracted driving," he said.
Texting while driving is now banned in 16 states, the District of Columbia and Guam. In January 2010, three more states join the list. In the majority of those, enforcement is primary, meaning users can be ticketed without any other infraction taking place.
Orluck said he hasn't heard any "rumblings" about a ban in North Dakota, and he sees any such action as slightly problematic.
"I can see where there would be some difficulty in enforcing that proving that someone was texting as opposed to looking down at something else," he said.