MINOT, N.D. - Imagine the day when the number of highway fatalities in North Dakota total zero.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation's Vision Zero strategy is shooting for that goal.

"It's been a challenge to convince the public that it's possible. We believe it is," said Karin Mongeon, director of the NDDOT's Safety Division. "Ninety-four percent of crashes involved preventable human factors. Vision Zero is not a state-level responsibility but everyone's responsibility."

Operating on an initial five-year plan, Vision Zero brings together engineering, education, enforcement and emergency medical services, said NDDOT Director Tom Sorel. It is working toward an initial milestone of 75 annual fatalities by 2025.

Source: N.D. Department of Transportation
Source: N.D. Department of Transportation
So far this year, there have been 87 highway fatalities in North Dakota, which compares to 102 fatalities at the same point a year ago. Of those this year, 22 have been confirmed as alcohol-related, compared to 51 for the same period a year ago. Lack of a seat belt has been a factor in 26 fatal crashes, compared to 41 a year ago.

During 2017, there were 116 fatalities, including seven in Ward County. North Dakota's fatality rate was 1.2 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. With the exception of 2016, North Dakota's fatality rate has been consistently higher than the national rate since 2008.

Sorel said national highway fatalities are at an epidemic 35,000 to 36,000 a year.

"We need to fix that. We need to bring those numbers down. Across the country, there's a lot of efforts in that direction," he said. "There's a movement across the country to really move in this direction, which is something that has needed to happen for a long, long time."

Sorel supports organic change at the local level. An example occurred earlier this year with the local input into a solution following a fatal crash at a dangerous intersection near Ruthville. A slower speed limit and increased enforcement is to be followed up with education.

Launched this year, Vision Zero is bringing communities on board with local strategies. Park River was the first Vision Zero community, and NDDOT is working now to help Minot achieve the designation.

Other activities include working with ABATE, which provides motorcycle education, and training law officers in recognizing driver impairment. It includes mobilizing ride services to keep impaired drivers off the road. It involves promoting seat belt campaigns and sobriety checkpoints in the hope these activities can influence behavior not just during the events but long-term.

Sorel said it comes down to changing a culture that's accepting of traffic deaths. Vision Zero is attempting the change by personalizing and putting a face on the people behind those fatalities. The North Dakota Crash Memorial Wall is an online space for honoring those who lost their lives on a North Dakota road. The memorial wall project includes both photos and video of traffic victims and earned a national award from the Governors' Highway Safety Association.

The memorial wall and other information can be found at VisionZero.ND.gov.

Vision Zero is moving the NDDOT toward more engineered safety enhancements to roadways as well. Sorel added technology could help bring about the vision, particularly vehicle safety features that continually improve and the potential for autonomous vehicles.

Vision Zero is funded through the department's safety budget, but Sorel said NDDOT is staying alert to potential partnerships, grants and sponsorships.

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