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Why do crashes still kill young men in North Dakota at an inordinate rate?

Of the 91 motor vehicle fatalities thus far in 2022 in North Dakota, 75 were males, according to the state transportation department's Vision Zero program.

Three people stand in front of a grave adorned by statues and crosses
Jerry Nelson, Yvonne Nelson and Corey Nelson stand in front of the grave of their son and brother, Kyle Nelson, in Lidgerwood, North Dakota. Kyle died when a vehicle he was a passenger in rolled and crashed near Geneseo on Nov. 13, 2014.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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LIDGERWOOD, N.D. — It’s as if the stars were aligned early on; a young man growing up in rural southeastern North Dakota knew “from the time he could walk and talk” that he wanted to take over the family farm.

Everything was in place for that transition when fateful decisions nearly eight years ago stopped it in its tracks.

Kyle Nelson, 20, was in a pickup with a friend when the truck rolled and crashed, ejecting the men who were not wearing seat belts.

His mother, Yvonne Nelson, was among the first to arrive as an EMT for Lidgerwood Ambulance.

“Truly in a blink of an eye … a decision can affect a family forever,” she said.

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Her son’s friend, who was driving under the influence of alcohol at the time, was not seriously injured, while Kyle was crushed by the vehicle and died at the scene.

“Not only losing Kyle but having to be first on scene is just something that I deal with every day,” Yvonne said.

Two brothers, laughing and horsing around
Brothers Kyle Nelson and Corey Nelson of Lidgerwood, North Dakota
Contributed

The loss is not confined to a son and brother unable to carry on the family farm tradition.

The death of Kyle Nelson continues to have painful and profound impacts on the family, as is the case for many who’ve lost loved ones in this manner.

Statistics show young males like Kyle continue to die in crashes in North Dakota and Minnesota at a disproportionately high rate.

Lauren Bjork, safety public information program manager at the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said of 91 fatalities through October of this year, 75 were males and 16 were females.

Men in the 25 to 34 age group are particularly at risk.

“They’re the ones more apt to take part in these risk-taking behaviors like speeding, not wearing their seat belts, driving impaired, driving distracted,” Bjork said.

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In Minnesota, 341 people were killed in crashes through September of this year; 243 were males, 97 were females and one person was unspecified.

The disparity is also seen nationally.

While the gap has narrowed, the number of male crash deaths was more than twice the number of female crash deaths for nearly every year from 1975 to 2020, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Sgt. Wade Kadrmas, safety and education officer with the North Dakota Highway Patrol, said young men often don’t think how others would be impacted if they were killed or seriously injured.

“If something happens to me, it happens to me,” is what Kadrmas often hears.

A gravesite is lit up with solar powered angels, crosses
Kyle Nelson's gravesite in Lidgerwood, North Dakota is lit up at dusk with solar powered angels, crosses and farm machinery.
Contributed

Bjork said the state has targeted that demographic through ads on TV, radio, digital and social media and more recently, on YouTube.

Reporting shows the state is reaching a large number of males through that platform, she said, with its seat belt and impaired driving campaigns.

“They spend a lot of time on YouTube,” Bjork said.

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But changing the “invincible” mindset of many young men will continue to be a stubborn challenge.

Kyle Nelson always buckled up, but for some reason didn’t in this case; perhaps, because he and his friend were only driving a little over a mile.

Corey Nelson, Kyle’s older brother by seven years and a paramedic in the Twin Cities area, sees the consequences of crashes caused by poor decisions daily.

“It just makes you upset because they're all preventable overall,” Corey said.

Single vehicle rollovers most common

When pulling up to the scene of a one-vehicle rollover, Kadrmas said it often seems like the person should have survived.

The vehicle might be relatively intact, but the person wasn’t buckled in and is lying several hundred yards away, perhaps with a broken neck or other fatal injury.

Crash reports on one-vehicle rollovers often contain that sad, familiar refrain: The driver, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected and died on scene.

Single vehicle rollovers make up the majority of fatal crashes in North Dakota, Bjork said.

110422.N.FF.NDFATALCRASHESweb-01.jpg

So far this year, about 62% of the people who died in crashes were not wearing a seat belt.

According to North Dakota’s 2020 crash report, nearly 80% of all unbelted fatalities were males.

At a September news conference about its Click It or Ticket campaign, the Minnesota State Patrol said unbelted motorists contributed to a significant rise in traffic fatalities in the last two years.

There were 110 unbelted traffic deaths in Minnesota in 2021, the highest since 2014, caused by impaired driving, speeding and other factors.

“Your decisions that you make affect others,” said Patrol Lt. Gordon Shank.

Still, Minnesota has a strong seat belt use rate overall of around 93%, higher than the national rate of nearly 91%. Bjork said North Dakota sits well under the national average, with not quite 84% of people wearing their seat belt.

110422.N.FF.MNFATALCRASHESweb-01.jpg

“It’s the percentage that aren't (buckling up) that are still dying at a much higher rate, so we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

One factor could be that Minnesota has had a primary seat belt law on the books since 2009, which means a driver can be pulled over by law enforcement if they or someone else in the vehicle is not wearing a seat belt.

North Dakota has a secondary seat belt law, where a person can only be cited for not wearing a seat belt if a driver is pulled over for another reason.

A primary seat belt law in North Dakota failed by just four votes in the last legislative session in 2021 but is likely to get another shot next year.

Ryan Gellner is the outreach program manager for Vision Zero, North Dakota’s strategy aimed at eliminating deaths and serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes.

He said primary seat belt legislation is in the early stages of development, with a potential bill coming forward during the next legislative session, which convenes Jan. 3, 2023.

States that have primary seat belt enforcement have seat belt use rates that are about 10% higher than states without such laws.

Just having the law would save lives, Gellner said.

'A living nightmare'

Every now and then, Kadrmas will get a request for a crash report from as far back as the 1960s or 70s.

Usually, it’s from someone who wants to understand what really happened to an older sibling or a relative.

“Why aren't they with me today? It goes way beyond the here and now,” Kadrmas said.

The Nelson family is still looking for more answers, nearly eight years after the tragic accident.

“You relive it every day,” said Jerry Nelson, Kyle's father.

On Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, Jason Neiber, 21, asked Kyle if he would help him dig a grave in the local cemetery prior to a funeral.

Kyle agreed, asked his dad what time he was needed to help with cattle in the morning, and took off.

It was the last time his family would see Kyle.

“Who knew that a few days later…a grave would be dug for him?” Yvonne said.

After the two young men finished the job at the cemetery, they went to a local bar and grill for a bite to eat.

Afterward, they got into Neiber’s truck for the 1 ½ mile drive back to his house, where Kyle’s vehicle was parked.

Two rustic iron markers, one bearing the photo of a young man,  stand near a road
The family of Kyle Nelson placed a memorial to him near where he died in a vehicle rollover near Geneseo, North Dakota on Nov. 13, 2014.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

On the gravel road, Neiber lost control of his Ford F250, drove off the shoulder and the truck rolled, ejecting both men.

Neiber was injured but able to move about after the crash.

Kyle died at the scene, and his mother, one of the responding EMTs, was faced with the reality that there was nothing she could do to save him.

Neiber was initially charged with criminal vehicular homicide, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless endangerment. He also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.

Yvonne and Corey gave impact statements in court and Neiber spent only a few months, with work release, in the Richland County Jail.

Corey said his brother’s death is the first thing he thinks of in the morning and the last thing he thinks of at night.

“It's a living nightmare. It's hell,” he said.

The thoughts that fill his head include what would Kyle be doing? Would the farm be in operation? Would Kyle be married?

“Maybe I’d be an uncle,” Corey said.

After the farm takeover dream died with Kyle, his dad and uncle sold their cattle and sold off or rented out most of the land.

A dark gray tombstone reads "A farmer gone home"
The back of the tombstone on Kyle Nelson's gravesite depicts the farm property he was set to take over in 2015.
Contributed

Holidays and birthdays have also been “taken away” with Kyle’s death, Corey said.

Yvonne said without therapy and medication, she’d be "in a fetal position… pounding my fist against the wall."

“It gets me through, day by day,” she said.

Corey said passing a primary seat belt law and implementing much higher fines for speeding violations in North Dakota would make a difference in the number of motor vehicle deaths.

"The Legislature is not doing their job," he said.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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