For a 3rd consecutive year, Minnesota highway deaths declined. The final count may rise slightly.
A crackdown on drunken drivers, increased citations and an early response to accidents have led to the fewest Minnesotans dying on state roadways since World War II, experts say.
In 2006, 475 people were killed, the lowest number of traffic fatalities since 449 people died in 1945, according to the Department of Public Safety, which released preliminary figures on Tuesday.
It's the third year in a row that Minnesota fatalities have declined. The final total for 2006 is expected to climb slightly, but far from the dramatic 655 deaths reported in 2003.
"This is good news because we didn't expect to hit this milestone until 2008 or 2009," Kathy Swanson, traffic safety director, said of the early figures. "But before we pat ourselves on the back, we must realize that this is not the end of our struggle. We're still not satisfied."
While the state is seeing a decline in traffic deaths, the figure has been rising nationwide. In 2005, traffic fatalities slightly increased to 43,443, up 0.1 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The increase was attributed to a spike in motorcycle-related deaths.
Last year's early tally of 475 also won't be anywhere near the 1,060 highway deaths the state reported in 1968, the most since it began tracking fatalities in 1910.
"We're very hopeful that we will come in under 500 [deaths for 2006], which would be a real benchmark," Dennis Smith, a public safety spokesman, said Tuesday.
Swanson said more enforcement was key. Authorities stopped more than 88,000 vehicles and handed out nearly 34,000 speeding tickets last year. A record high 40,000 DWI arrests were made, she added.
Jon Roesler, an epidemiologist who studies injury and violence prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health, credits in part the Public Safety Department's "Toward Zero Deaths" initiative. It includes state and local agencies addressing traffic safety through enforcement, education and better emergency trauma care as an example.
"I wish we had zero deaths, but 475 is way less than 655. It's fewer people and that's encouraging," said Roesler, who has served on the state's DWI task force. "The new total is now a standard for the future."
Buck McAlpin, president of the Minnesota Ambulance Association, which represents some 250 ambulance services across Minnesota, believes the new statewide trauma system, which was signed into law last year, has already had an impact.
He said many Minnesotans involved in accidents living in isolated and rural areas now have more access to trauma centers, especially during the "golden hour," the time between injury and medical help, including surgery. Trauma or serious injury is the leading cause of death for Minnesotans ages 1 to 44.
"These victims are being flown from the scene, thanks to first responders trained to quickly recognize critical conditions," said McAlpin, who has been a paramedic at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale for 22 years. "If the victims arrive at these centers in time, their survivability is very high."
While the lower number of traffic deaths is significant, Swanson also warned against complacency for the state's 3.8 million registered drivers.
"If we can get under 500 deaths, then our goal should be to get under 400," she said. "We should not change our intense efforts to reduce the number of fatalities, many of which could have been prevented."
Alcohol, speeding and failure to wear seat belts were again the top causes for deaths on state roads last year. Roughly 70 percent of the motor vehicle deaths occurred outside the metro area, where two-lane highways are prevalent. Swanson said many involve teenagers and adults, mostly males.
Motorists represented the highest amount of fatalities (360), followed by motorcyclists (64), pedestrians (38), bicyclists (8), ATV riders and snowmobilers (2 apiece) and a motor scooter rider (1).
Roesler said he is disturbed that while motorcycles account for only 3 percent of registered vehicles in Minnesota, motorcyclists represented 13 percent of all traffic deaths in 2006. Six more motorcycle deaths were reported last year than in 2005.
"There is no single solution for this," Roesler said about traffic deaths overall. "It's going to take a lot of effort. There's more work ahead of us."