North Dakota Tries to Stem Oil Region Traffic Deaths

By Kevin Begos and Jonathan Fahey | May 8, 2014

Despite efforts to improve roads and safety enforcement, traffic fatalities in North Dakota’s drilling regions keep climbing while the rest of the state’s roads are getting safer.

Traffic deaths in six western counties rose last year to 63, from 54 in 2012. In the rest of the state, traffic deaths fell to 83 from 116.

A decade ago, just 14 people died in traffic deaths in those counties. And it’s not just a surge in population and economic activity that is driving the trend — population in drilling counties has surged 43 percent over a decade, but traffic deaths have risen 350 percent.

Alan Dybing, a researcher at North Dakota State University’s Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute says a combination of factors is likely at play. The biggest is the increase in the number and percentage of trucks on roads that were not built for high traffic volumes. He calculates that 2,300 truck trips are needed to complete each well drilled in the Bakken oil formation.

“Accidents and severity of accidents increase when you mix vehicle sizes and speeds,” he said. “A semi going up a hill is going to lose speed, and people want to pass.”

Other factors Dybing noted include the high number of young men —the riskiest driving demographic — who have come for oil work and the difficulty ramping up safety enforcement and making road repairs fast enough to keep up with the boom.

Dybing said the state’s drivers are starting to adapt, however.

“People have learned to live with it,” he said.

Safety officials, researchers and drillers have been aware of the problem since the number of crashes and fatalities began to rise along with drilling activity. They have been trying to slow or reverse the trend by adding enforcement personnel and widening and improving roads.

There is a financial cost to the increase in accidents, too. An NDSU study last year calculated that the economic cost of severe crashes rose to $257 million in 2012, from $126 million in 2008, as truck crashes that involved a serious injury rose 1,200 percent.

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