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Reitan: Dying on North Dakota highways, day-to-day driving behavior needs to be conscientious choice

By Mike Reitan

In the April 12th addition of “The Forum” an article appeared on page A5 titled Highway deaths have mayor looking for answers. Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford referenced the nine traffic fatalities in McKenzie County representing twenty-eight percent of the thirty-two traffic related deaths in North Dakota so far this year. The thirty-two deaths are three more than this time last year and puts the state on pace for 128 traffic fatalities by the end of the year according to the Department of Transportation (NDDOT).

The NDDOT reports that of the nine deaths in McKenzie County five of the nine were not wearing seatbelts. Other factors included driving too fast for conditions, crossing the center line and improper turning. Mark Nelson, director of the traffic safety division for NDDOT, commented to “The Forum”, “A lot of it comes right back down to the choices that people are making in their day-to-day driving. We can’t engineer our way out of this problem.” Billy Schmidt, a truck driver, is quoted in “The Forum” article, “Everyone blames it on the trucks, but most of the time it’s the pickups. Slow the pickups down. They’re going 80.”

Looking at the particular violations cited in “The Forum” article relating to traffic fatalities and the contributing factors the following penalties or conditions of enforcement are in place in North Dakota. The violation relating to a person over the age of seventeen not wearing a seatbelt is a secondary enforcement action. A secondary enforcement action requires the halting officer to have articulable suspicion another offense had been committed to stop the violator. Once stopped, the officer could cite the driver for the seatbelt violation. The fee for not wearing your seatbelt is $20 dollars.

It is a violation to have a person under the age of eighteen to be unsecured in a vehicle if a passenger restraint is available for them to use. This violation is a primary offense and a driver may be stopped and cited for this offense alone. The fee for an unrestrained passenger under the age of eighteen within a vehicle is $20 dollars.

Highway 85 near Watford City is posted with a 65 MPH limit. Using the example provided by Schmidt, a pick-up traveling at 80 MPH on Highway 85 would be traveling at fifteen miles an hour over the limit. The fee for the violation would be $45 dollars. This is figured with a formula of $2 for each mile over the limit for the first ten miles over, $5 for each mile over the limit from eleven over and beyond. In comparison, the fee for the same violation in Minnesota would be $125.00 dollars, in South Dakota- $110 dollars.

Another of the factors listed as a cause in the fatal crashes was driving too fast for conditions. Driving too fast for conditions has several variables relating to the existing conditions at the time of the driving. A driver may be cited for the violation even though they may have been traveling slower than the posted limit. Examples would be conditions such as heavy dust, blowing snow or dense fog causing limited visibility for the driver. If the driver is unable to see far enough ahead to recognize a danger and safely stop they would be driving too fast for conditions - visibility. When road surfaces are rough, have loose material such as gravel or are slippery due to mud, compacted snow or ice the vehicle’s handling and braking ability is affected. Even if the vehicle is traveling well below the posted limit, a driver unable to properly control their vehicle is driving too fast for conditions vehicle control. The fee for driving too fast for conditions is $30.

Crossing the center line places a vehicle in a head-on crash position with vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Often this violation will occur when the ability to see ahead is affected by the geometrics of the road such as hills or curves; an obstructed field of view caused by other vehicles on the roadways or weather conditions; or by a driver’s inattentiveness to their vehicle’s position on the roadway. The NDDOT has placed rumble strips upon the centerline and shoulders of state highways to alert drivers to the vehicle position on the roadway. The fee for driving left of center is $20.

An improper turn is one made by a driver that causes their own vehicle to interfere with the safe travel of another vehicle. An example would be a driver making a left hand turn in front of another vehicle when there was not enough distance between the two vehicles to avoid a collision or to cause the other driver to take defensive actions to avoid the collision. The improper turn can be especially disastrous for people on motorcycles. The fee for improper turn is $20.

During the legislative session this year in Bismarck there were a number of bills introduced to strengthen the penalties for traffic violations and to make the use of passenger restraints a primary enforcement law. The bills have been either defeated or amended and substantially changed. House Bill 1335 was introduced in the House of Representatives this year to make the seatbelt violation a primary enforcement offense but was defeated. House Bill 1048 was introduced in the House to increase fees for certain traffic violations. The House amended the bill to reduce fees assessed for violations on 65 MPH roadways, removed some language from the bill and left some language intact. The Senate further amended the bill to again increase the fees for speeding. HB1048 is currently in a conference committee with House and Senate members working to find a compromise to the amendments. Senate Bill 2240 relating to driving under the influence was defeated. HB 1302 relating to driving under the influence has been amended by both the House and the Senate. The bill was recently passed by the Senate and returned to the House. It is expected the bill will go to a conference committee.

Nelson’s comment about driving behavior coming right back down to the choices that people are making in their day-to-day driving is very accurate. A driver consciously or subconsciously completes a risk analysis as they operate their vehicle. They will determine if they feel safe operating the vehicle under the existing conditions. They will attempt to determine the risk associated with being caught violating the law. Most everyone taps their brakes or glances at the speedometer when they see a marked patrol car. They will also make a decision relating to the significance of the penalty if they are caught. Are the gains obtained through committing the violation worth the amount of penalty (fees) assessed? Compare your own driving behavior in North Dakota versus how you drive in Minnesota or South Dakota. Does it make a difference?

Slow down. Buckle up. The time to make the decision about driving drunk is before you start to drink. Don’t do it. Don’t drive drunk.

Mike Reitan is the assistant West Fargo police chief