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Fewer ND highway fatalities so far

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota highway fatalities so far this year are lower than they were during the same period a year ago, going against a general trend of rising fatalities statewide and nationwide.

According to figures released Friday by the North Dakota Highway Patrol, there have been 36 fatalities so far compared to 44 a year ago. That's a decline of 18 percent.

It's difficult to draw too many conclusions so early in the year in a state with so few fatalities, said Sgt. Tom Iverson, who leads the agency's safety efforts. Still he called it a "significant decrease."

"It's a good sign when 13 of the crashes were alcohol related, compared with 21 last year," he said.

There have been three traffic fatalities in the northeast quarter of the state, five in the southeast, 10 in the southwest and 18 in the northwest, where the state's oil industry is booming.

In 2012, there were 170 highway fatalities in North Dakota, up from 148 in 2011, and the most since 1978, according to the state Department of Transportation. In the 10 years preceding 2012, the number of fatalities had risen significantly in comparison to the number of vehicle miles traveled in the state.

Nationwide, the number of fatalities in 2012 totaled 34,080, up 5.3 percent from 2011. It was the first time fatalities had increased since 2005, when they totaled 43,510. In the region that includes North Dakota and several other Western states, the fatalities increased 4 percent.

The national fatality rate -- deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled -- also rose last year, to 1.16 from 1.1 in 2011, after falling sharply from 1.46 in 2005.

The number of vehicle miles in North Dakota has generally risen, thanks to activities in the Oil Patch, but the numbers for 2012 aren't yet available.

There are good reasons to think fatality numbers can go lower, despite more miles being driven by more people in the Oil Patch, Iverson said.

Four troopers were added to the force in 2011, bringing the total to 148. The legislative session that just ended included funding for 15 more troopers over the next year or two, he said.

The patrol has targeted drunk driving, careless driving and the need to use seat belts more than ever, he said. Like many Western states, North Dakota remains far below national norms in seat belt use and is well above average for the amount of drunk driving, he said.

"The difference in fatal crashes (so far this year) can be attributed to increased enforcement on the roads," he said. "That is a proven approach to keeping our roads safer."