Port: North Dakota officials aren't taking enough credit for traffic safety improvements

While monitoring the body count for our state's highways is important (it's a bit morbid to put it that way, but it is what it is), it needs to be put in the context of how much traffic there was on the roads.

17th Avenue corridor
Traffic flows Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, through the intersection of 45th Street and 17th Avenue South, Fargo. A traffic study of 17th Avenue South considered safety, traffic flow and bicycle path work. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

MINOT, N.D. — It is rare for anyone, particularly a conservative such as myself, to accuse politicians and government officials of not taking enough credit for something.

I think Gov. Doug Burgum and the North Dakota Department of Transportation are guilty of that, however.

Recently Burgum's office sent out a press release touting gains in traffic safety, particularly in the context of the gov's Vision Zero initiative, which he launched in January 2018. It was duly reported, with the headline being that North Dakota traffic fatalities have dropped to their lowest point since 2002 .

That's good news, especially in a spread-out, wide-open place like North Dakota. Rural areas have much higher rates of traffic fatalities than urban areas, and North Dakota is almost entirely rural.

Yet there is some context missing from the information the state has put out. They're noting the improvements in road safety in North Dakota, sure, but they're not telling the full story.


And the full story is pretty remarkable.

While monitoring the body count for our state's highways is important (it's a bit morbid to put it that way, but it is what it is), it needs to be put in the context of how much traffic there was on the roads.

If the body count drops because there were fewer miles logged on North Dakota roads, that's a different matter entirely than the count dropping because North Dakotans drove more safely and/or we had better enforcement of traffic safety laws.

Good thing for us, the government keeps track of the amount of miles traveled on our roads. They called it "vehicle miles traveled", and because I'm a nerd with little in the way of a social life, I keep a spreadsheet with this data in it and I update it when new data is released.

Unfortunately, we don't have a VMT number for 2019 (I contacted the folks at the DOT earlier today and they don't have a number they can release yet), but I do have VMT numbers for past years along with fatality numbers.

I plotted them on the graph, and the story they tell is pretty remarkable:

North Dakota Traffic Fatalities and Vehicle Miles Traveled.png


You can see that North Dakota's VMT numbers increased, pretty dramatically, from about 2006 to 2012, which is understandable. We had a big oil boom in western North Dakota and, in a not unrelated development, our state's population has been setting records in recent years.

Yet, despite that, traffic fatalities in our state have fallen.

Since their peak in 2012, road fatalities in North Dakota have fallen a whopping 42.35 percent through 2019, while the VMT number has fallen just 2.3 percent through 2018 (again, I don't have a 2019 number yet).

The state's rate of road fatalities -- the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled -- has fallen nearly 37 percent through 2018:

North Dakota Traffic Fatalities Per 100 Million VMT.png

Gov. Burgum deserves some credit for this, though he's only been in office since 2017 and he didn't launch Vision Zero until 2018 and, as you can see from the charts, our trend toward lower fatality rates had begun well before then.

Our Department of Transportation and law enforcement agencies deserve even more credit.


And, hey, we deserve some credit too. North Dakotans seem to be making better driving decisions. The state's most recent report on seat belt use , as one example, shows a continued upward trend.

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Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

Related Topics: DOUG BURGUM
Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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