Nurses urge 'ounce of prevention' on Minnesota's traffic laws

  • Article by: JIM FOTI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2008 - 5:50 AM

Stricter rules for the road could save lives and reduce injuries, which saves money, the group said.

Minnesota's refusal to pass stricter traffic safety laws earned it the second-lowest score in a new national ranking.

The Emergency Nurses Association released its 2008 scorecard of traffic safety in a St. Paul conference room with vivid views of Interstate 94 and the State Capitol. The group is hoping to persuade the Legislature to save lives -- and lots of money -- by beefing up the rules.

"If government knew how much they were paying for these injuries that could have been prevented, I think they'd take another stance," said Mary Griffith, a nurse who works in St. Paul at Bethesda Hospital, which provides long-term acute care. "It'd be interesting to look at the bills of a brain-injury patient for a lifetime."

The scorecard listed 13 types of laws covering such things as seat belts, motorcycle helmets and child safety seats. Minnesota had only five out of the 13, tied with Ohio and Idaho and ahead of only the Dakotas and Arkansas. Oregon and Washington were first, with perfect scores.

Minnesota has no helmet requirement for adult motorcyclists, and while drivers are required to wear seat belts, they can't be pulled over for that offense alone.

Drivers who cite personal freedom as a reason for opposing a primary seat-belt law can find themselves unable to live independently if they're injured in a crash and end up burdening families and maxing out insurance policies.

"We had one gentleman who wasn't seat-belted in -- drinking, driving, flew out of the car," Griffith said. "They had to look for him in the woods, and he was wrapped in barbed wire.... He walked out of [the hospital] and he went home with his family, but he will never be the same."

Joan Somes, who works at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul and is president of the Emergency Nurses Association, said that wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of death by 45 percent and of serious injury by 50 percent. A primary seat-belt bill failed at the Legislature during the 2008 session; state safety officials estimate that such a law could save dozens of lives a year.

The nurses report also noted that Minnesota and the Dakotas are among the handful of states that still have no laws on automotive booster seats for children 4 and older.

Despite its scorecard ranking, Minnesota generally does well in national surveys of overall highway deaths. In terms of traffic fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, for example, Minnesota had the second-lowest death rate, after Massachusetts, according to Cheri Marti, director of the state's Office of Traffic Safety.

The state's numbers on teenage drivers involved in fatal crashes, however, have been among the highest. Recently passed laws restricting the number of passengers and nighttime driving for novice drivers are aimed at improving on that, and they brought Minnesota's score up from 3 in 2006.

The nursing association timed its report to coincide with the coming winter holidays -- and the surge in business the holidays bring to emergency rooms.

"We hate that first snowfall," Somes said.

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

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