Drivers hit and killed more pedestrians in Minnesota last year than any other year in the past quarter century, according to a preliminary total released Tuesday.
The Department of Public Safety said 60 pedestrians died on Minnesota roads in 2016, 19 more than the previous year. The last time that many pedestrians died was in 1991, when the figure reached 61.
Determining the cause of the spike is challenging, but state officials noted this fall that distracted driving crashes appeared to be on the rise. Police in some cities, like St. Paul, have stepped up enforcement of traffic laws to try to protect pedestrians.
“It is distressing to see such an increase in pedestrian deaths,” Donna Berger, director of the DPS Office of Traffic Safety, said in a statement. “These are our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members and friends. It’s especially upsetting because this doesn’t have to happen. These tragedies are preventable, but it requires both motorists and pedestrians to do their part.”
Minnesota law says drivers must yield to a pedestrian attempting to properly cross in a crosswalk, if they can safely stop. All legal intersections are crosswalks, whether painted or not.
In 2016, Channy Kek, 55, was leaving work when a man driving a minivan struck her in St. Paul. An unknown driver hit Barbara Mahigel, 74, steps away from a restaurant for an anniversary dinner in south Minneapolis. Jeanne “Dolores” Stafford, 75, was hit by another unknown driver walking to a bus stop in Hopkins. All three were in crosswalks.
Witnesses said a driver ran a red light and collided with Seth Bennett, 23, in Brooklyn Park and left the scene. Bennett died two weeks later.
“I think that they should really be concerned about their responsibility if they can leave a person like that on the road, and he ends up dying, and they don’t even care,” said his mother, Jeri Bennett.
Bennett said her daughter hung fliers seeking information after the crash and people recognized her son.
“He was a gentle guy,” his mother said. “He just liked to tell you jokes or stories.”
Suburbs more deadly
Twin Cities pedestrians are particularly vulnerable in the suburbs, where wide, high-speed roads are the norm and some areas lack crosswalks and sidewalks. A Star Tribune investigation of pedestrian crashes last year found that nearly twice as many pedestrians died in the Twin Cities suburbs as in Minneapolis and St. Paul between 2010 and 2014, despite the fact that cars hit people in the suburbs far less frequently.
It also showed that the majority of drivers who killed pedestrians during those years were never charged. Those who were charged typically faced minimal penalties. Information from subsequent years was not immediately available Tuesday; it must be compiled from an array of police reports and court records.
St. Paul has stepped up enforcement of such laws as part of its “Stop For Me” campaign. St. Paul police Sgt. Jeremy Ellison said the drivers he stops for failing to yield often say they did not see the pedestrian — but that often means they’re not looking.
“Actively trying to watch for pedestrians is something that we really need to try and teach drivers to do,” Ellison said. “Because you can drive down the street, but if you’re not looking for them, you aren’t going to see them.”
Four pedestrians were killed in St. Paul last year, down from six in 2015. But there were 188 pedestrian crashes, 314 if including bicyclists. The city intends to add additional enforcement and outreach.
Bennett, who still doesn’t know who hit her son, believes some people don’t care what the laws are.
“They are going to do what they want to do,” she said. “And most of it I think has to do with cellphones. That and being drunk.”
Minnesota has compared well with other states in recent years with regard to pedestrian deaths.
The state had the fewest pedestrian deaths per capita in the country in 2014, though Minnesota’s deaths had dipped dramatically that year. In 2013, a more typical year, Minnesota’s 32 deaths ranked second per capita behind North Dakota.