Mark Berwick was standing at a gas station this summer along U.S. Highway 2 in Ray, which had a population of 592 in 2010. The traffic noise was comparable to noise alongside the interstate in Fargo, said Berwick, a research associate at the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute.
As traffic has increased in western North Dakota, so has the number of crashes involving injuries. Through Dec. 20, 42 percent of fatalities on North Dakota roads in 2011 were in northwestern North Dakota, Berwick said.
The state's other three regions, which include areas of higher populations, like Fargo and Bismarck, each had 20 percent or less of the state's fatalities.
Through Thursday, 145 people had died on North Dakota roads in 2011, making it the most dangerous year on the state's roads in recent history.
Safety officials hoped 2009's traffic fatality count of 140 was an anomaly after deaths on North Dakota roads shrunk to 105 in 2010. But 2011 has them worrying that 2010 may have been the odd year out.
"I think that if we're looking at what is the anomaly, it might have been 2010," Berwick said.
Williams, Ward and McKenzie counties have had substantial increases in fatalities compared to the previous year. Berwick said Williams had 10 traffic deaths through Dec. 20, compared to three in all of 2010; Ward County had 13, compared to three in 2010; and McKenzie County had 15, compared to eight in 2010.
Berwick said many factors in western North Dakota may be contributing to the increase in fatalities on the roads. The total amount of traffic has increased substantially, as has the truck traffic. There are more people in the area who are not familiar with the roads and more people who aren't accustomed to driving through North Dakota's winter conditions.
He cautioned that it is important to look at the fatalities in light of statistics on vehicle miles traveled rather than looking at them alone. According to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, approximately 6,000 vehicles traveled on a stretch of U.S. Highway 85 west of Watford City to the junction of U.S. Highway 2 near Williston in 2011, compared to 2,300 vehicles on the same stretch in 2006.
Similarly, the vehicle count on U.S. Highway 2 north of Williston to the junction of U.S. Highway 85 went from approximately 5,000 per day in 2006 to 12,000 in 2011.
Western North Dakota's road problems didn't just start last year. A report from the Rural Transportation Safety and Security Center, which is part of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, said total crashes in 17 so-called "oil counties" increased from 2,320 in 2006 to 3,909 in 2010. Crashes involving injuries increased from 504 in 2006 to 847 in 2010.
The percentage of crashes involving trucks doubled statewide in that period. Speeding or driving too fast for conditions were cited as contributing factors to more than one-third of crashes in oil counties from 2006-10.
Other than the increasingly heavy traffic in western North Dakota, some of the things that seem to be influencing the high fatality numbers are consistent from other years statewide: alcohol involvement, lack of seat belts, speed and inexperience all are cited as reasons for crashes by experts.
Terry Weaver, traffic safety program coordinator for the North Dakota Safety Council, said 60 of the 145 fatalities through Thursday involved alcohol use.
In 75 of the cases, people who died were not wearing seat belts, compared to 31 who were.
The 145 total fatalities also include 14 people killed in motorcycle crashes, 10 pedestrians killed and one person killed in a bicycle crash.
Weaver said the statistics show the risk in rollover crashes more than any other kind: 85.7 percent of people killed in rollover crashes were not wearing seat belts and were thrown from vehicles.
Berwick pointed out that the demographic group most likely to forego a seat belt involves young men - the same group most likely to be living, working and driving in the oil fields.
Young people are disproportionally reflected in fatality statistics, Weaver said. As of Dec. 27, 35 people between the ages of 14 to 24 were killed, including 21 who were driving at the time of crashes and 12 who were passengers. Of the 35, 19 were 21 to 24 years old, she said.
Weaver said the fatality numbers among young people were disturbing enough earlier this year in two western counties, Williams and McKenzie, that she worked with groups in those communities to bring in the safety council's Alive at 25 program. At that point, seven out of 16 people younger than 25 killed were in those two counties, she said.
She heard from parents who said they were afraid to let their teens drive because of the increased traffic and dangers on the road.
The National Safety Council has identified two reasons why teens and inexperienced drivers may be in more danger on the roads than people who have been driving longer: Inexperienced drivers have more problems with gap perception, meaning they can't tell how much time they have to pull out, stop or merge into traffic, and hazard scanning, where they are not looking ahead or around to see what's happening.
Weaver said the Alive at 25 program has helped reduce crash and citation numbers in other parts of the state.
While winter driving conditions haven't been a big deal so far this fall and winter, Weaver said she's already heard from some oil and trucking companies in western North Dakota who want information on teaching their employees to drive on snow and ice.
"They know it's just a wreck waiting to happen," she said.