After two years of notable declines in traffic deaths, Minnesota is on pace to notch a dramatic decline in 2011 as higher gas prices and bad weather contributed to fewer deaths so far this year, officials say.

The Department of Public Safety announced Wednesday that a deadly week on state roads had pushed the number of traffic deaths this year above the 100 mark, as of Monday.

The uptick comes on the eve of Memorial Day weekend, which department spokesman Nathan Bowie called "a historically deadly" stretch of days marking the start of the summer driving season.

But the milestone was reached about a month later than in 2009 and 2010. At the current rate, officials say, the state could see 375 deaths in 2011. That would be the lowest annual total since 356 fatalities reported in 1944.

Officials have attributed the recent declines to targeted enforcement, engineering improvements and traffic safety legislation, including a primary seat belt law that survived a repeal effort this year.

"Ultimately, it comes down to driver behavior," however, Bowie said. He urged motorists to be especially cautious this weekend.

Officials say 2011 is off to a safer start in part due to higher gas prices and inclement weather, the latter of which, they say, has contributed to slower speeds and a late start for motorcyclists.

The state reported 421 traffic deaths in 2009, the lowest total since 1944. Bowie said he expects final 2010 figures to come in below that when announced in June. A preliminary count earlier this year put last year's tally at 410.

Of the 2011 year-end projection, he said, "things could change if we stumble upon a bad June or other month down the road." But he said the formula does take into account an expected uptick in deaths during the summer, "which is the deadliest time for our roads," Bowie said.

A year ago, the state also offered a year-end projection when the number of road deaths hit the 100 mark in late April. Then, officials said 2010 fatalities could hit 440.

Deadly stretch

At least 12 people have been killed on state roads since May 17, the State Patrol said.

One motorist died early Wednesday after drifting off Hwy. 61 and hitting a traffic light pole in White Bear Lake. No information was released about the driver, who was alone.

On Tuesday, Gerald Frederick, 83, and Lorraine Frederick, 82, of Madison Lake, Minn., were killed when their car was struck by a sport-utility vehicle east of Mankato in Blue Earth County, the patrol said. Both were wearing seatbelts.

Two of the other nine fatalities since May 17 involved a pedestrian and a motorcyclist. The patrol said Reid Kirkpatrick, 56, of Cromwell, Minn., died after his motorcycle went off a dry road and overturned about 1:45 a.m. Saturday. It was not known whether he had alcohol in his system. The pedestrian, Michael Rasmussen, 20, of Circle Pines, was run over by a semitrailer truck and killed while walking in a traffic lane on Interstate 35W in Blaine on May 17.

Of seven remaining deaths, the patrol said that at least one person who was killed was not wearing a seatbelt.

Looking ahead to the summer, Bowie said, "People should buckle up, drive at safe speeds and pay attention."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109