Despite constant law enforcement pressure and public education to curb risky driving habits, traffic fatalities in Minnesota are on pace to surge for the second consecutive year.
Safety officials can’t point to particular trends behind the 204 deaths so far this year, aside from a rise this summer in motorcycle fatalities. But if the current rate continues, the total will easily surpass the 395 fatalities in 2012.
“It would be easier if there was a smoking gun to point to and then target it,” said Lt. Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol. “We don’t see any smoking gun.”
Instead, a variety of factors — speeding, drunken and inattentive driving, or lack of seat-belt use — continue to play a role in most crashes, officials say. From 2008-12, more than half of the state’s 2,050 vehicle fatalities involved alcohol or not wearing a seat belt.
Last year, traffic deaths increased in Minnesota for the first time since 2007 and nationwide for first time since 2005. In 2011, Minnesota had 368 deaths, the fewest recorded since 1944.
This year, three of the seven counties in the metro area — Hennepin, Carver and Scott — have already passed their totals for all of 2012. The other four counties are on pace to exceed their numbers from last year.
Although the statewide numbers are well below what they were 10 years ago — when there were 655 fatalities — and far lower than in 1968 — when a record 1,060 deaths occurred amid much less driving — officials have express concern. “We should not tolerate this increase in deaths,” Langer said.
In Anoka County, more than half of the 10 fatalities have happened on Hwy. 10 and Hwy. 65, both main thoroughfares. The county will start a $35 million interchange project on Hwy. 10 in Ramsey to improve safety and traffic flow.
Statewide, the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety has distributed more than $7 million in federal grants since October to law enforcement agencies and community groups for high-profile enforcement and education campaigns. A speed-limit enforcement effort in July cost 12,400 drivers a ticket. A “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign starts next month.
The Legislature also plays a role in accident prevention, with measures such as the “no texting” law that took effect five years ago on Thursday. More than 1,100 citations have been issued to teen and adult drivers caught texting this year.
Teaching new drivers
Driving schools stress the dangers of distracted driving to their students. At A+ Driving Schools, students take a drive in a golf cart while texting to show how difficult it is to stay safe, said CEO Pete Hosmer. One-quarter of this year’s fatalities have been drivers under 25.
“I drive every day and see people texting, and they don’t think it’s wrong,” Hosmer said.
He also suggested that drivers take a road test every 10 years. Most people get their license at 16 and probably won’t take another exam until they enroll in “A Stay Alive at 55” refresher course, he said.
“We just assume once you pass the first time you are an OK driver,” Hosmer said.
As car manufacturers make their vehicles “smarter” with more safety features and features like Wi-Fi, drivers may have a false sense of security on the road, said James Kilibarda, owner of Elite Driving School in Richfield.
“Even if the telephone isn’t in your hands, it is the conversation that is distracting you,” he said. “In our classes, we try and educate the students and their parents.”
Local insurers are sure to take note of accident numbers because it could have an effect on people’s premiums, said Mark Kulda, spokesman for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota. Insurance costs have trended down for the past 15 years as claims continued to fall, he said. That was a result of fewer people driving because of the bad economy, telecommuting and safer vehicles, he said.
Langer of the State Patrol has heard all kinds of theories why fatalities fluctuate, including rising gas prices. But nearly 100 percent of crashes involve people who aren’t buckled up, paying attention, driving sober or following the speed limit.
“People are just failing to understand and comprehend the fundamentals all drivers know,” he said. “They tend to have the attitude that nothing will happen to them because I’m a safe driver. I see safe drivers getting killed by drivers who are unsafe.”