The number of traffic fatalities in South Dakota rose by more than 20 in 2012, but stayed below the average for the past 10 years, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Out of 119 crashes on the state’s road last year there were 134 fatalities. That’s up from the 111 fatalities in 2011, but still below the average of 156 over the last ten years.

Lee Axdahl, director of highway safety for the department, said the increase this year is unfortunate, but when compared with a high of 203 fatalities in 2003 and the 10-year average, it’s encouraging.

“Are we trending down in South Dakota? Absolutely we are trending down,” he said.

2011 was a “statistical aberration” of a year for traffic fatalities nationwide, he said, and in South Dakota it produced the lowest number of fatalities since World War II.

Speculative explanations for the dip include a warmer winter, high gas prices and a sluggish economy, but Axdahl said the actual reason could be a combination of those factors or something entirely different.

“Anyone can easily say what didn’t kill somebody,” he said.

The numbers for 2013 so far are showings signs of staying low. Between Jan 1 and Feb. 21 there were five collisions and five fatalities, compared to nine crashes and 10 fatalities during the same period last year.

But Axdahl said a single bad multi-car accident, such as one that happened in Sioux Falls earlier this month, could easily cause those numbers to climb.

As to why numbers have on average dropped over the past decade, Axdahl credits that to education efforts by the department to cut down on drunk driving and speeding – the two leading causes of collisions – and law enforcement cracking down on dangerous driving.

“Between education and interdiction you are going to continue to see those numbers go down,” he said.

While collision numbers predictably cluster around population centers, the fatalities are distributed over the state. Young male drivers in rural areas especially have led to what Axdahl termed the “statewide randomness of dangerous driving.”

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