Editorial: Traffic deaths rise after six-year drop

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2012 - 8:13 PM

State Patrol targets drunken drivers on New Year's Eve.

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Traffic was backed up on I-394 at Hwy. 101 in the eastbound lane early Tuesday.

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Parents know well the phrases they're obliged to utter as their teenagers prepare to depart for a night on the town: drive safely, be careful, and so on. They want to do everything possible to avoid the ultimate nightmare -- the phone call in the middle of the night, the hospital, the morgue, the numbing horror of young lives cut short, the aching loss that never goes away.

In a less personal way, editorial boards feel similar obligations, knowing the odds that, as revelers prepare to depart on New Year's Eve, not everyone will return home. But maybe there's an outside chance that a word or two can make a difference for someone, somewhere. So, be careful out there, drink responsibly, buckle up, appoint a designated driver, stay alert.

Traffic deaths will be up across the nation this year -- and probably in Minnesota -- after six years of steady decline, partly because people drove more miles in a recovering economy and partly because milder weather drew more motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians onto the roadways. Fatal crashes involving large trucks (up 20 percent in 2011) remain a particular concern, as do crashes involving drivers distracted by cellphone calls and text messages.

Despite the 2012 uptick, however, there's much to celebrate about traffic safety. Deaths are down 25 percent over the past decade. More remarkably, they are down 86 percent over the last 60 years. In 1950, for every 100 million vehicle-miles driven, there were seven deaths; this year there was one. Surely, that's one of the great achievements of the modern age, thanks both to advances in technology and increased public awareness about driving safely.

Roads nowadays are better designed and maintained. Cars are safer in almost every way, with seat belts and airbags making a big difference. Modern trauma units -- including ambulance, airlift and emergency-room crews -- save thousands of lives that would have been lost decades ago. Moreover, computers allow highway patrols to pinpoint the most likely trouble spots.

In Minnesota, for example, law enforcement officials are able to predict where drunken drivers are most likely to threaten themselves and others. All through December, officers have used extra patrols to target drunken drivers, who collectively over the past three Decembers had contributed to 28 deaths. Through mid-December this year, officers had arrested more than 1,300 drunken drivers. On New Year's Eve, they will pay special attention to 13 counties -- seven large metro counties (Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota, Washington, Wright and Sherburne) plus Stearns, Olmsted, St. Louis, Becker, Meeker and Otter Tail.

Indeed, targeted enforcement, along with awareness campaigns led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups, have greatly enhanced highway safety. "It's much better, but it's nowhere near where we'd like it to be -- which is zero," said Bruce Gordon, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Remarkably, Minnesota has not suffered a roadway death on New Year's Eve since 2007. "We want to make it five in a row," Gordon said. "We're pushing as hard as we can for a safe and sober holiday."

Metro revelers should know that Metro Transit's buses and trains (including Northstar) will be free starting at 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve. Taxis also will be out in force. As for drivers, the State Patrol urges anyone seeing erratic driving to pinpoint the location, copy down the license number and call 911. Traffic safety isn't a personal choice; it's everybody's business.

  • SAFETY NUMBERS


    •U.S. traffic deaths per 100 million vehicle miles, 1950: 7.


    •U.S. traffic deaths per 100 million vehicle miles, 2011: 1.


    •U.S. traffic deaths, 1949: 30,246.


    •U.S. traffic deaths, 2010: 32,999.


    •Minnesota traffic deaths, 2011: 368 (lowest number since 1944, and a 44 percent decline from 2002).


    •Minnesota traffic deaths, 2012: 366 (as of Dec. 24).


    •Minnesota traffic death rate, 2011: 0.65 per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled (third lowest in the United States, behind Massachusetts and Connecticut).


    Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

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