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Idaho 2003 fatality rate may hit 20-year high
Final numbers won't be known for another few months

By Pat Murphy
Times-News (Twin Falls)

HAILEY – The really bad news about Idaho’s traffic accidents in 2003 ironically won’t be fully known until well into 2004, when a mountain of statistics flowing into the state Transportation Department from local and state agencies are finally compiled and analyzed.

But the news already was grim: by New Year’s Eve, fatalities on state roads and highways are believed to have surpassed the decade's high of 278 set in 2000.

Idaho State Police spokesperson Rick Ohnsman said that two new confirmed fatalities in recent days have brought the total to 280, and a child critically injured in an accident may become a statistic in the fatality column.

Moreover, he said, the state can count any 2003 accident victim who dies in the first 30 days of 2004 as a 2003 statistic.

The eight counties in the Magic Valley area recorded 25 fatality accidents investigated by Idaho State Police in 2003 – some of which could involve several fatalities in a single accident. But those 25 do not include accidents investigated by sheriff's departments or local city police, whose statistics were not immediately available.

In 2002, there were 43 fatality accidents in the eight counties resulting in 54 deaths.

One of the worst 2003 records was in Blaine County, where Sheriff Walt Femling reported 14 road deaths for 2003 compared to only three in 2002.

Idaho's worst year for traffic fatalities was 1981, when 293 died on state roads.

Ohnsman pointed out, however, that the rate of road fatalities in Idaho – that is, the number of deaths per 100 million miles driven -- has been higher than the national average. Nationally, 1.5 persons died per 100 million miles in 2002, while in Idaho the rate was 1.8 persons.

That rate could go even higher if the numbers of deaths increase but fewer miles are driven.

Ohnsman as well as Transportation Department spokesperson Darla Christiansen said the most tragic element in road fatalities is that as many as two-thirds of the victims weren't wearing seat belts and might've survived had they buckled up.

“All the high-tech safety designed into cars is all for naught,” Ohnsman said, “if a person is ejected.”

Ohnsman has a motto drivers should heed, he said: “People who stay in the car (wearing safety belts) live; people who don't, die.”

A driver education program being conducted in Coeur d'Alene in northern Idaho is being watched with interest, Ohnsman said.

Accidents that are fatalities are down since the voluntary program began. He said a new session this weekend has 65 drivers already registered.