An unusually hard winter is finally easing its grip. But it has entered a dangerous freeze-thaw phase that has taken a tragic toll. Seven young lives have been lost in two vehicle collisions on icy roads — three on Hwy. 3 on the edge of Northfield on Feb. 28, four on Hwy. 14 near Sleepy Eye on March 7.

The grief in Northfield is centered at Carleton College, where the five occupants of a vehicle that slid into an oncoming semitrailer truck were students. Three died; two were seriously injured. In Sleepy Eye, only one of the five friends in the car that slid into an oncoming pickup truck survived. He was the driver, Kansas Adams; his brother Payton Adams was among the four dead.

These are the sorts of accidents that animate the nightmares of Minnesota parents. They ought to give every Minnesota driver a cautionary chill. As State Patrol information officer Lt. Eric Roeske said after the Sleepy Eye crash: “This tragedy as well as the one last week outside of Northfield illustrate that at the wrong time and the wrong place, simply losing control on an icy road can be absolutely devastating. We can’t emphasize enough the importance to be aware of the driving conditions, and adjust your driving accordingly.”

We’ll take his cue. Tough as it is to dwell on these tragedies, we hope Minnesotans stay mindful of a few things:

•If you don’t have to drive, don’t. Modern vehicles and road maintenance tactics give some drivers the illusion that they can safely navigate any road, any time. Minnesotans have seen this year that winter can still overcome the best of these advances. The impulse to get behind the wheel for less-than-imperative reasons ought to be questioned.

•If you must drive, buckle up. Seat belts don’t guarantee safety. But they improve the odds of surviving a crash. The two recent accidents illustrate both points. Those in Northfield died despite wearing seat belts. In Sleepy Eye, the driver of the sedan that crossed the centerline was belted and survived. His back-seat passengers were not, and all died.

Minnesotans are buckling up in bigger numbers than ever, latest counts show. But the National Safety Council has identified populations whose seat-belt usage lags (see accompanying text).

•Slow down. Throughout this winter, State Patrol advisories have included pleas to drivers to slow down. Speed — not above the posted limit, but in excess of what prudence dictates — is the biggest contributor to winter accidents. It’s a small mistake that can exact a big price.

This winter has tested Minnesotans’ driving skills as few others have. It ought to spur questions about whether the drivers’ training regimen required before licensure is sufficient for the challenges Minnesota weather poses. And it ought to redouble every driver’s resolve to respect the weather — and be careful out there.