MITCHELL, S.D. — Despite abnormal amounts of snow and rain making South Dakota's roads slicker than normal for much of this year, the state's number of highway fatalities to date in 2019 is significantly lower than last year's.
Lee Axdahl, director of the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety, said Friday, Sept. 6, that highway fatalities for the year are currently down 40 percent from the same point in 2018, and while he attributes some of that to advertising and education efforts, there's no one factor that accounts entirely for that decrease. That percentage includes fatalities recorded on highways and all other roadways in South Dakota.
"We've made it through the bulk of the summer with the roadway deaths heading in the right direction pretty significantly," Axdahl said. "Now we just have to try to close out the year with that same momentum that is keeping us where we are statistically."
So far in 2019, 50 people have died as a result of 45 crashes in South Dakota, according to information from the South Dakota Department of Public Safety. Twenty-three of those crashes occurred in the 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and another person died Tuesday as the result of an early-morning crash in Mount Vernon.
"Summer months are deadly months because we've got more people out on the roads, and when you've got more miles being driven, you've got, obviously, increased odds of having bad things happening," Axdahl said.
Of the 50 people killed in crashes this year, 80 percent were drivers, and the fates of South Dakota's drivers in this summer's fatal crashes were strongly correlated to seat belt and helmet use.
Of the 23 drivers who were wearing a seat belt or helmet when they were involved in a crash that ended in at least one fatality this summer, seven were killed, five were injured, and 11 were unharmed.
Meanwhile, of the 11 drivers who did not use safety restraints, 10 were killed and one was injured. The South Dakota Department of Public Safety did not specify seat belt and helmet use for five other drivers involved in fatal crashes.
For the 23 fatal crashes between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the events that initiated most fell into one of six categories. Five resulted from drivers crossing into oncoming traffic, four were the result of a vehicle leaving the roadway, four were rear-end collisions, three were caused by a driver failing to yield at an intersection, two began with a driver failing to negotiate a turn in the road, and two others took place when drivers lost control of their vehicles. In the remaining three crashes, drivers swerved to avoid an obstacle in the road or made an illegal lane change, and one tractor rolled onto its driver.
Axdahl said he was pleasantly surprised to see that the state's record-breaking precipitation levels so far this year didn't cause a spike in the number of people hurt in crashes and that the number of fatalities at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was also lower than in past years.
"There were plenty of opportunities in South Dakota, whether it was weather-related or roadway-related or just simply heavy vehicle traffic-related, to have a significantly increased number of fatals and injuries," he said.