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Published December 27 2012

Forum editorial: Another highway tragedy

The deaths Wednesday of six men in the collision of a pickup truck and a semi assure that North Dakota’s 2012 road death total will surpass the carnage of 2011. And 2011 was deadlier than 2010.

The six men in the pickup were westbound just west of Jamestown when the driver lost control and the pickup spun across the median into the eastbound semi. Road conditions at the time were treacherous, and Highway Patrol officers on the scene speculated the pickup was going too fast. An investigation is ongoing.

This week’s road tragedy is one of many that made headlines this year. The 2012 death toll as of Wednesday was 159, compared with 148 in all of 2011. So what’s going on?

First, traffic of all kinds is up, due in large part to trucks rolling in and out of the booming Oil Patch. But the state’s overall economy also is doing very well, so traffic that might not be directly related to oil – agriculture and the routine movement of goods – also is up. Anyone who drives on Interstate 94 between Fargo and Bismarck knows traffic volume is up.

Second, despite news of tragic accidents and intensified education programs, drinking and driving remains a plague on North Dakota’s highways. The Department of Transportation reported that 52 percent of fatal accidents this year involved alcohol. Last year it was 43 percent, which suggests drivers are not getting the message.

Third, while early winter road conditions always bring a spike in vehicle crashes, the influx of drivers from states that don’t experience North Dakota-type winters is almost a guarantee of more road mishaps. The combination of speed and/or ice and reduced visibility is a frighteningly new experience for many out-of-state drivers.

Finally, concentration on fatalities sometimes overshadows injuries, some permanent, that result from traffic accidents. And there is no way to measure the emotional pain families suffer when loved ones are killed in crashes.

Awareness of the situation is a start but only that. What should North Dakota do? Toughen DUI laws? Lower speed limits? More enforcement of truck regulations? More salt-sand applications in winter? More Highway Patrol presence on the roads?

The long-term answer probably is all of the above. Meanwhile, look for the next headline about tragedy on North Dakota highways. It won’t be long …

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.