Secretary Price answers questions about South Dakota traffic fatalities

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Fatalities on South Dakota’s roads and streets were lower heading into the Labor Day weekend than at the same point last year, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Secretary Craig Price this week answered questions from KELOLAND Capitol News Bureau reporter Bob Mercer in Pierre about the sensitive topic of contacting victims’ families and highway deaths.

Prior to his appointment this year as secretary, Price was commander of the South Dakota Highway Patrol.

State Public Safety Secretary Craig Price (far left) testified recently at a legislative meeting. Sitting next to him is South Dakota Highway Patrol Superintendent Rick Miller.

Q. How is a victim identified at the scene of a highway crash? Who is officially in charge of the identification?

A. Identifying a deceased victim involved in a crash can sometimes be difficult. If there are surviving individuals from the crashed vehicle, sometimes they can assist in providing identification of the deceased individual, coupled with any identification on the person, such as driver’s license, identification card, et cetera.

For crashes where there is only one individual in the vehicle, or the passengers in the same crashed vehicle are incapacitated or deceased themselves, the process becomes a little more difficult.  Any identification on the person such as a driver’s license or identification card can aid in the identification – if the ID card has a picture of the face of the individual that can be used to try to positively identify the person involved in the crash.  Other means of identification can be tattoos, scars, marks, et cetera, that may be on file with law enforcement.

Unfortunately  there are some crashes that require a more in depth identification process. Some require DNA identification – either through hair testing, or dental records.

When a potential next of kin is identified, the individual who is assigned to provide the notification can also ask some clarifying questions to aid in the identification, such as  “What vehicle was John driving tonight, and where was he going?” This may aid if we have a crash involving a green truck and he was headed to the gas station at SD 79 and SD 40 if the next of kin answered the question as, “He was in his pickup going to get gas in Hermosa, and his truck is green.  He took the highway from our house like he always does.”

All of this can be used to corroborate an identification. 

There are times where potential next of kin is asked to come to the hospital or scene to assist in identifying an individual. However, this is extremely rare and is a last-case option.  

The identification of the deceased is tasked usually to a law enforcement officer at the scene, assisted in some instances by the victim witness coordinator from the (government) Crash Assistance Program. 

2) Who is assigned to make the contact to a surviving relative? How is the contact made?

For in-state death notification, at a minimum a two-person response to the next of kin is conducted.

Ideally it would be a (South Dakota Highway Patrol) trooper and the victim witness coordinator from the Crash Assistance Program. Due to varying circumstances, sometimes the law enforcement officer is not a trooper and instead a city police officer, or a county sheriff or deputy.  Also, the victim witness coordinator is not always available, so clergy — a chaplain if available — could also be used.

There are instances were two law enforcement officers conduct the notification. As much as possible the notification is made in person, face-to-face. There are circumstances where a notification has to be done over the phone; however, this is not the ideal notification process. 

The two-person team who does the notification will stay with the individual until family, friends, et cetera, arrive. The goal is to not leave that person by themselves if at all possible. 

For out-of-state death notification, State Radio contacts a law enforcement agency where the deceased has their home of record or the known next of kin lives.

The local law enforcement is provided with a brief overview of what occurred, and a point of contact here in South Dakota — either the trooper or the victim witness coordinator. After the local law enforcement out of state makes contact, they usually contact the South Dakota point of contact and provide us with contact information to the next of kin notified.

We — either the trooper or victim witness coordinator — contact them to establish a communication line to assist with questions, direct victim service, et cetera. 

3) Typically there is at least a 24-hour period, or longer, between the official news release about a fatality and the subsequent news release identifying the victim. Is there a standard department protocol?

The Department of Public Safety’s policy on the releasing of names in fatal crashes three days after the first release was sent out has two parts.

One is the consideration of the family. We want to give people the time to notify family members first. There are few things as shocking as hearing the name of a loved one being killed in a crash from the media or non-family members first. We try to avoid that.

The second part is legal as we adhere to Marsy’s Law, which was initially passed in 2016 (by South Dakota voters). DPS determined that three days would be a good period of time for victims of crashes to step back and decide whether they did not want their names released. Very few families have invoked Marsy’s Law so far.

Names of those who are charged in crashes are released.

4) How many people have died on South Dakota streets, roads and highways through Monday, August 26, 2019? How many fatalities has South Dakota seen in the four previous years?

Secretary Price’s office provided this chart:

Number of Persons Killed on SD Roads
’15’16’17’182019
Year-to-Date (Aug 26th)8577698750
Year End Totals134116129130

5) How much has the state Office of Highway Safety spent on average in the past four years?

The average per year for all funds spent under the Office of Highway Safety is $5.2 million, with 87 percent coming from federal funds

6) How many people have died wearing seat belts during each of the past four years? How many people have died who weren’t wearing seat belts wearing seat belts during each of the past four years?

Secretary Price’s office provided this chart:

Fatalities Seat Belt Usage
 20152016201720182019
With belt2821243114
Without belt6058676219
Unknown741064
Not applicable 
(Motorcycle, Pedestrian, Bicyclist, etc.)
3933283113
TOTAL FATALITIES13411612913050

7) What are the numbers of fatalities who were wearing seat belts and who weren’t wearing seat belts through Monday, August 26?

Secretary Price’s office provided this chart:

Year-to-Date (Aug 26th) Fatalities Seat Belt Usage
 20152016201720182019
With belt1512132214
Without belt3941363619
Unknown42444
Not applicable 
(Motorcycle, Pedestrian, Bicyclist, etc.)
2722162513
TOTAL FATALITIES8577698750

8) Anything you’d like to point out?

Keeping people safe on South Dakota’s highways is a major goal of the Department of Public Safety. Not a day goes by where we don’t discuss highway safety.

Our overall goal is to educate people, both teens and adults, about the need to be safe drivers. The Highway Patrol with its enforcement efforts such as sobriety checkpoints and the Office of Highway Safety with its safety messages such as the Jim Reaper campaign — which was honored this week at the (national) Governors Highway Safety Association conference — are part of our efforts. We also work with other governments and organizations to provide a unified message on driver safety.

Our efforts in South Dakota are working. We saw a three percent decrease in the number of fatalities from 2017 to 2018 and this year so far we are behind last year’s numbers. We hope to keep the trend going in the right direction.

This weekend, the Labor Day weekend, is another example of our reminders about driver safety. Many people are on the roads this weekend headed to the State Fair, football games or one final summer trip. We encourage people to be careful.

During last year’s Labor Day traffic reporting period,  there were three fatalities. Two were in motor vehicles and the other was a pedestrian. Highway Patrol troopers will be out on the roads as well keeping people safe.

Once again this weekend our message is simple: We remind drivers to slow down, obey all traffic laws, watch for others, don’t drink and drive, don’t get distracted and wear a seatbelt. Have a safe Labor Day weekend.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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