BISMARCK – North Dakota traffic deaths and arrests for drunken driving are on track this year to be nearly identical to last year's figures.
Officials weren't sure as to why the numbers remained essentially flat in both categories this year but added that the goal is to see decreases in both over time, with the ultimate goal being zero.
As of Dec. 24, there were 130 traffic deaths in North Dakota this year. In 2014 there were 131 traffic deaths through Dec. 24. For the full year in 2014 there were 135 deaths. This is down from 170 total deaths in 2012 and 148 in both 2011 and 2013.
For 2014 there were 1,672 arrests for driving under the influence. This year there's been 1,668 as of this week. Through Dec. 24 there were 54 traffic deaths that were alcohol-related, down from 58 through the same period in 2014.
"We haven't looked at any indicators of why it's tracking the same," North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Eldon Mehrer said of the DUI numbers, adding that he's unsure to what extent 2013 changes in DUI laws increasing the penalties for drunken driving have had an impact.
Mehrer said the Highway Patrol's level of patrolling is fairly similar throughout the year with a nearly identical number of troopers on the roads at any given time. He said an annual year-end push for more visibility through increased patrols and use of overtime hours has been going on for the past several weeks.
Mehrer said, as to the number of deaths, "a lot of those causation factors, it ends up being a personal choice."
For example, the number of traffic deaths involving those not wearing seat belts through Dec. 24 was 67, down from 74 through the same period last year.
Ashlee Doan, a public information specialist with the North Dakota Department of Transportation, agreed with Mehrer about the reasons behind the overall flat numbers.
"It's hard to speculate. The majority is all behavior-driven," she said.
Doan said the DOT receives federal grant dollars to provide funds to local law enforcement for overtime pay. These dollars allow departments that decide to participate to have more officers on the road during key times of the year, such as holidays.
She said these additional overtime hours statewide have resulted in approximately 3,300 seat belt violations, 1,250 drug- and alcohol-related arrests and violations as well as 140 child restraint violations.
"It's hard to imagine how many lives were saved due to their commitment to traffic safety," Doan said.
Matched with a continuous educational push on the importance of not drinking and driving and wearing a seat belt, Doan said "we will hopefully see less and less" deaths as a result of such action.