The number of people killed in accidents in Washington County last year rose to eight, still the second-lowest level in nine years, according to state data released earlier this year.
After peaking at 20 in 2007, the county’s annual death tally has fluctuated between six and 11 in recent years.
“It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons why the deaths went up in 2012, but a few factors include a mild winter,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Nathan Bowie said in an e-mail, “and a spike in motorcyclist deaths.” There were six fatalities in 2011.
Traffic deaths also rose in the Twin Cities region and across the state last year — 2 percent and 7 percent, respectively — according to the Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety (OTS). Fatalities in Minnesota jumped to 395 in 2012 from 368 the year before, which had been the fewest recorded since World War II. The uptick marked the first year-over-year increase in deaths since 2007.
Nationally, the picture was much the same, as fatalities jumped 6 percent in 2012 after several years of decline, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
While the data show a general downward trend in road deaths in Washington County over the past decade or so, motorists feel less safe on the roads because of drunken and distracted drivers, according to a recent county survey.
The eight people killed in Washington County in car accidents last year included a volunteer Scandia firefighter whose car was hit by another vehicle in Lake Elmo in late February.
Traffic officials are always looking for ways to make travel safer. A study of the county’s roads identified intersections where serious accidents are likely to occur.
Stillwater has had four traffic fatalities since 2004, prompting officials there to form a Traffic Review Committee “where citizens can bring concerns to the city as far as wanting more stop signs, wanting fewer stop signs, wanting crosswalks here and changing the speed limits,” police Capt. Nate Meredith said.
According to Meredith, police enforcement of seat belt and drunken driving laws has also played a key role in reducing the death rate.
Gearing up for more traffic
With the construction of a new four-lane bridge across the St. Croix River in nearby Oak Park Heights, officials are bracing for what is likely to be a large increase in traffic.
In Woodbury, the county’s most populous city, police and school officials have teamed up on a campaign aimed at persuading teenagers not to text and drive. Washington County has seen a rise in a troubling statistic: the number of young drivers involved in fatal accidents.
Joe Gustafson, a county traffic engineer, said that 26 percent of fatal and serious accidents on county roads between 2006 and 2010 involved drivers younger than 21.
“It’s kind of harder to address from the engineering side. It’s kind of something that has to come from education,” he said.
There were 109 traffic deaths in the metro area last year, up from 107 in 2011, the OTS data show. Of the region’s seven counties, four recorded more fatalities. The biggest spike came in Anoka County, where the number of deaths jumped 127 percent from 2011 to 2012. Carver, Hennepin and Scott counties saw a decline.
Statewide rise after declines
Statewide, the number of roadway fatalities is on pace to surpass last year’s totals. Officials are reporting 272 deaths in 2013 so far, compared with 261 at the same time in 2012, though this is preliminary data.
Speeding, drunk or distracted driving, and a reluctance to wear seat belts are the leading factors linked to the crashes, Bowie said.
Before 2012, the state saw a steady decline in fatalities.
Traffic safety officials said the drop can be attributed to several factors: better urban planning, advances in medical care, stronger enforcement of distracted-driving laws and a tepid economy.
“This is a little bit worrisome as the economy recovers, but I think a large part of it is that the economy decreased and people were driving less,” Gustafson said.
Cars are also safer. There are more vehicles with electronic stability control systems, anti-lock brakes and air bags on the roads today, officials say, making accidents less likely and more survivable.
“I would like to believe at least a piece of this had to do with road improvement,” Gustafson said. “Unfortunately, when you improve a road, you never have any way of knowing how many injuries or fatalities you prevented.”