Shreya Dixit, a promising 19-year-old honor student from Eden Prairie, was killed nearly 11 years ago by a distracted driver on Interstate 94 while returning home from the University of Wisconsin.
Her family was consumed with grief, but they also vowed to educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving.
“I would have gone crazy if I didn’t do something,” said Vijay Dixit, Shreya’s father. “This is what I’m going to do until my last breath.”
A big part of that effort involves working with the state’s Toward Zero Death (TZD) initiative, which aims to eliminate highway fatalities in Minnesota. Skeptics might dismiss such a notion, as motorists increasingly text, e-mail and post on social media while driving. And a measure to curtail distracted driving fizzled at the Legislature this spring.
But since the state departments of Transportation, Public Safety and Health launched the TZD initiative in 2003, roadway deaths in Minnesota have decreased to 358 last year, a decline of 45 percent. Modeled after a safety program in Sweden, TZD uses education, engineering, enforcement of safety laws and enhanced emergency medical and trauma services to pare highway deaths.
“It is absolutely working,” said Dixit. “Achieving zero deaths is a difficult goal, but states like Minnesota that have committed to that goal see the numbers [of deaths] are going down.”
Minnesota runs counter to national trends. While traffic deaths across the country declined by 40 percent between 1985 and 2011, the number has increased since then to 37,461 in 2016. Minnesota was the only state in the Midwest to report a decline in traffic fatalities last year; Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois all saw increases.
Liisa Ecola, an analyst with the California-based RAND Corp., was initially skeptical about the Vision Zero program in Sweden. “But they’ve made enormous improvements on what was already a very good record. I think that’s very convincing,” she said.
MnDOT’s statewide TZD coordinator Kristine Hernandez attributes the Minnesota program’s effectiveness to government agencies cooperating with one another. “A lot of people were working on traffic safety, but they were working in their own silos and they weren’t talking to each other,” she said, noting the initiative is seen as a model for other states.
Grounded in data
Each department involved in TZD contributes a different expertise to the effort.
MnDOT uses its engineering acumen to make highways safer, including installation of rumble strips, roundabouts and cable median barriers. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) enforces highway laws, including crackdowns on drunken driving and speeding. The Department of Health ensures there’s an effective emergency trauma system in place to quickly tend to those injured in crashes.
Many of these efforts would have occurred on their own. But “TZD is the glue that holds us all together; it brings us to the same table where we can work with each other to solve traffic safety issues,” said Mike Hanson, director of Traffic Safety for DPS. “It breaks down bureaucratic barriers.”
TZD initiatives usually begin with data.
“You look at your data to find what behaviors and what types of crashes are happening,” Hernandez said. “Is it speed, a particular intersection, alcohol, lack of seat belt use?”
If data point to a disproportionate number of crashes on a certain highway, MnDOT may install cable median barriers to separate lanes — a move that has reduced fatal head-on crashes by 95 percent. Last year, more than 578 miles of these barriers were installed, and now they’re routinely incorporated into most state highway projects.
MnDOT has also rolled out rumble strips in a big way to warn drivers approaching an intersection or straying from their lane. Federal research indicates that the highway indentations help reduce crashes by more than 30 percent.
Public safety officials involved in the TZD initiative mostly try to influence driver behavior — particularly drunken driving and speeding, big contributors to fatal crashes — by stepping up enforcement of existing traffic laws, and educating the public.
For example, half the people who die in fatal crashes aren’t using safety belts — and most are young men between ages 16 and 34. “They say [seat belts] are uncomfortable, they don’t want the government telling them what to do, they’ll do what they want,” Hernandez said.
That demographic is notoriously difficult to reach, since many don’t watch the news or read newspapers, and are not inclined to listen to their parents. So TZD launched “Message Mondays,” when clever safety directives appear on 280 highway electronic boards throughout the state. One winter holiday message read: “He sees you when you’re drinking. He knows when you’re .08.”
Hernandez acknowledged there is no hard evidence indicating that these messages work, but she said she hopes they will at least start a conversation about safety.
The chance of survival following a crash diminishes with time, so it’s imperative that victims are connected to appropriate care quickly. TZD had a hand in implementing a statewide trauma system in 2005 that connects emergency responders with hospitals to care for those injured in car crashes.
Before the initiative, only 76 percent of Minnesotans lived within 60 miles of a trauma center, which are specially equipped to treat crash victims. Now, the number is 99 percent.
“When a crash does occur, we want to make sure the person is transferred as quickly as possible to the right place,” said Mark Kinde, the health department’s manager of injury and violence prevention.
One reason the concept of zero highway deaths isn’t entirely far-fetched is the advent of new technology in vehicles. This includes automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, blind spot detection systems and sensors that disable a car if you’re drunk.
Longer term, autonomous vehicles will likely rule the roads. They won’t eliminate crashes, but they will have a tremendous effect on safety.
In the meantime, Hanson, a state patrol officer for 32 years, insists that crashes are preventable.
He recalled many evenings bearing bad news when “you step on that front porch, the light snaps on and Mom and Dad meet you at the door. They see the hat, the badge, and they know why you’re there.
“Anyone who has done that will tell you they would do anything not to do it again.”