PIERRE — South Dakota drivers are paying a deadly toll for disregarding the rules of the road.
Drivers who are speeding, not wearing seat belts, and/or having consumed alcohol and other intoxicants, are dying at a much higher rate than in recent years, according to a report from the state Department of Public Safety.
Because of that bad behavior behind the wheel, more died on South Dakota highways and roads in 2020 than 2019, with 141 people killed in 132 fatal crashes in 2020, according to the DPS. There was a 38% increase in fatalities, as 102 people died on South Dakota highways and roads in 2019.
The 2019 total was the lowest for any year since statistics started to be recorded in 1947, and the 88 crashes that had at least one fatality also was a record low. Then came 2020, the year when almost everything went wrong.
The fatality rate jumped dramatically even as South Dakota drivers appear to have driven less. According to preliminary data from the South Dakota Department of Transportation’s 2020 Vehicle Miles Traveled report, the total is slightly down from the more than 9.9 million miles driven in 2019.
The National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the prevention of deaths and injuries, said South Dakota had the highest percentage increase in highway deaths in the nation last year.
The NSC estimated South Dakota had a 33% increase in road fatalities, tying it with the District of Columbia. The explanation for the slight disparity is because the NSC was working with preliminary data it received in January, according to Ken Kolosh, the safety council’s manager of statistics.
Lawrence County reported nine crashes that caused fatalities in 2020, with 12 people dead. Pennington had 11 fatal crashes and left 11 people dead. Meade County reported four dead in four crashes, Butte had two people killed in a pair of crashes and Harding had one person killed in a fatal crash.
Amanda Hossle, the director of the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety, said these are sad statistics to release.
“Any fatality, any fatal crash that we see is always a concern,” Hisle said. “What it comes down to is our efforts, between the Office of Public Safety and the Highway Patrol, to really remind people to be safe drivers, when it comes down to changing people’s driving behaviors and really becoming safer drivers out on the road.”
She said it was apparent last year that the state’s roads were becoming deadlier.
“We keep track of these numbers on a daily basis and we could tell the trend was higher than where we were at in 2019 at any particular time,” Hossle said.
Drunk-driving deaths spike
She said while there are reports of heavier drinking due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no clear evidence it led to the increase in deaths on the road. But it’s readily apparent impaired drivers make poor decisions to put themselves at risk for serious, even fatal crashes.
Some people who were killed were speeding, had been drinking, and were not wearing seat belts, Hossle said. They may have been distracted as well, she said. The deadly trend was apparent in raw statistics, with a jump from 27 alcohol-related fatal crashes in South Dakota in 2019 that left 28 people dead to 49 alcohol-related crashes in 2020 that caused 51 deaths. Was that linked to heavier drinking in the last year?
“It’s hard for us to say there’s a true connection to the pandemic,” Hossle said. “South Dakota is such an open state. It wasn’t only on the interstate we were seeing these fatal crashes, it was on the local county roads as well.”
DPS spokesman Tony Mangan said the rise in road fatalities in South Dakota is part of a national trend, and a report from the nonprofit National Safety Council confirmed that. A study released March 4 said 42,060 people died in vehicle crashes in the United States in 2020, an 8% increase over 2019. That’s the first increase in four years, and the most fatalities since 2007, when 43,945 were killed on American highways. In addition to the fatalities, the NSC estimates 4.8 million people were injured in crashes in 2020.
Kolosh termed the increase in deaths “alarming.” While South Dakota led the way, other states had substantial rises in fatal crashes as well.
The increase in fatal crashes happened despite a 13% decrease in the number of miles driven nationally. While the COVID-19 pandemic kept people at home more, making highways and roads less crowded, they were much more deadly. The fatality rate per 100 million miles driven spiked 24%, according to the NSC. That is the largest annual percentage increase since the council began collecting data in 1923.
“It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn’t reap any safety benefits,” said National Safety Council President and CEO Lorraine M. Martin. “These data expose our lack of an effective roadway safety culture. It is past time to address roadway safety holistically and effectively, and NSC stands ready to assist all stakeholders, including the federal government.”
Why the increase?
Kolosh said speed was the main cause, but evidence based on medical reports of trauma victims also points to increased use of alcohol, marijuana and opioids. South Dakota drivers and passengers also died in large part because of speed, alcohol use and not wearing a seat belt. The problem isn’t getting any better, either, as fatality numbers in 2021 are up compared to the same time in 2020, and the same three causes are the reason.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Albertson said the eight troopers in the Northern Black Hills are seeing clear evidence of bad behavior behind the wheel.
“I would say we’ve seen a lot more aggressive driving, higher speeds, not using their signals when they change lanes, following too close, and not using their seatbelts,” said Albertson, who has been with the patrol for 17 years.
The trend isn’t headed in the right direction, either. The number of fatalities is rising at a higher rate than last year, Albertson said.
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