PIERRE — The number of fatal motor vehicle crashes in South Dakota took a significant jump in 2020, registering the highest number of crashes in the state since 2007.

According to statistics released Wednesday by the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, South Dakota recorded 141 motor vehicle fatalities in 132 fatal crashes in 2020. That number is 38% higher that the 102 fatalities recorded in 2019, which saw the lowest total in state history since records have been kept starting in 1947. The state saw 88 fatal crashes that year, also a record low.

Amanda Hossle, director for the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety, said it was disappointing to see the numbers increase in the past year. Every death that occurs on the roads and highways of South Dakota is a precious life that is valuable to someone, and the South Dakota Department of Public Safety strives to help see those numbers fall as low as possible, she said.

“We’re always concerned about any fatality number,” Hossle told the Mitchell Republic. “Everyone that dies in a fatal crash was important to someone, we try to keep that in mind and at the forefront.”

The rise in fatal crashes is especially disappointing following the record-low year of 2019, as well as the fact that South Dakota has been among the leaders in the United States with the lowest five-year average for motor vehicle fatalities, according to a release from the South Dakota Department of Public Safety.

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Craig Price, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, said the department planned to increase its safety and enforcement efforts in a move to help bring those numbers down.

“Our efforts have worked in past years and we will continue our safety messages through the Office of Highway Safety and enforcement efforts between the Highway Patrol and local law enforcement,” Price said in a release. “Even one more vehicle death is one too many, and we plan to encourage driver safety.”

The drop in fatalities in 2019 and increase in 2020 reflect a general nationwide trend, Hossle said. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic deaths decreased nationwide in 2019 as compared to 2018. There were 36,096 fatalities in motor vehicle crashes in 2019, which represented a decrease of 739, or 2%, from the reported 36,835 fatalities in 2018, even though vehicle miles traveled increased by 0.8% in 2019.

An early estimate from the NHTSA for 2020 fatal crashes, released in December, shows that an estimated 28,180 people died nationwide in motor vehicle crashes. That was an increase of about 4.6% as compared to 26,941 fatalities reported in the first nine months of 2019.

While it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what factors play into such increases and decreases on a year to year basis, the most common causes of the deaths are clear, Hossle said. The most prominent causes of fatal crashes in South Dakota are speeding, alcohol and drug use while driving and not wearing a seatbelt, and they all contributed to fatal crashes in South Dakota last year.

“The three main factors we see, no matter what kind of crashes we see throughout the year, are overdriving the speed limit, impaired driving, whether it be drugs or alcohol and not wearing a seatbelt,” Hossle said. “The jump in fatalities has been a national trend, and South Dakota unfortunately wasn’t the only state to see an increase in those fatalities.”

Hossle said the recent increase in fatalities in South Dakota will drive increased public education efforts from the department of public safety. Reminding people to avoid risky driving habits such as impaired driving, speeding and distracted driving will hopefully keep them aware of the importance of being mindful while they’re behind the wheel.

"As the number of vehicle miles continues to increase in South Dakota, it is even more important that we work to change driver behavior,” Price said. “We plan to work with all of our partners to stress our basic safety message: Slow down, pay attention, drive sober and always wear a seatbelt."

— Craig Price, South Dakota Department of Public Safety Secretary

Stepping up enforcement of traffic laws through law enforcement is another way to discourage dangerous behavior on state roads, Hossle said.

“It comes down to changing behavior. We continue to use our media campaigns, whether that’s television commercials, social media, just all aspects of media and getting that message out to everyone in the state,” Hossle said. “We work closely with the South Dakota Highway Patrol and law enforcement throughout the state, as well as non-profits. We just really stress the importance of being safe drivers.”

Hossle said the fatal crash numbers appear to be up in 2021 compared to this time in 2020, as well, though she did not have official numbers available.

Driver safety will always be something to be stressed in South Dakota, where long stretches of road and a low population density can lead to extended commutes and long hours on the highway, Price said in a statement.

“As the number of vehicle miles continues to increase in South Dakota, it is even more important that we work to change driver behavior,” Price said. “We plan to work with all of our partners to stress our basic safety message: Slow down, pay attention, drive sober and always wear a seatbelt.”

Hossle agreed that the safety of South Dakota motorists is of prime importance to the department of public safety, and efforts will continue to bring the fatal crash statistics from 2020 down to as low as they can go.

“We’re just reminding drivers to be safe on the road, which is the top priority of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety,” Hossle said. “We want nothing more than for the traveling public to make it home at the end of the day. Everyone out there is important to someone else, and we want people to get home to their families.”