Public safety officials alarmed by the dramatic rise in fatal motor vehicle crashes in Minnesota are turning to employers for help in spreading the word about the need for safe driving.
The tactic comes as Minnesota closes in on 400 traffic deaths for the year and is on pace to record its most traffic fatalities since 2007. It also comes as law enforcement has seen a huge uptick in speeding and other risky driving behaviors that coincided with the onset of the pandemic.
Roads have changed in a "tragic and horrific way," said Mike Hanson, director of the Office of Traffic Safety, leading traffic safety officials to augment traditional enforcement campaigns by leaning on employers to help curb dangerous driving.
"Employers have tremendous reach," said Minnesota Safety Council President Paul Aasen. Messages from employers "reach them, their family, their neighbors, their friends. It's a great way to reach a lot people at one time. Employers are also a trusted voice."
Last week the council launched a new "Speed Counts, Slow Down" initiative that encourages employers to use e-mails, newsletters, posters and social media blasts from the council to educate their workers about the dangers and consequences of speeding.
More than 30% of this year's traffic deaths — 124 — have been speed-related, making it the leading factor, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS).
"Speed murders. Speed massacres. Speed manslaughters," said DPS Assistant Commissioner Booker Hodges.
Speeding is not the only transgression playing into what law enforcement and others have dubbed a "traffic safety crisis." Over the past 18 months, a growing number of drivers have also exhibited other risky behaviors — driving while impaired, not wearing seat belts and being distracted behind the wheel.
"Troopers have never seen driving behavior this poor," said Col. Matt Langer, head of the State Patrol.
All that has translated to police delivering more death notifications to families, and crash victims who survive suffering from life-changing situations, officials said.
Kellen Schmidt knows that all too well. He suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was rear-ended by a semitrailer truck in March. Before the crash, Schmidt, 33, liked to boat and hunt and was planning to start a family with his wife. Now he suffers headaches and wonders if he'll be able to get back to work as a lineman for Xcel Energy.
"My life is changed," he said. "I can't do the things I want to. It feels like a knife cutting my brain out. My family plans are on hold."
Aasen estimates that as many as 40,000 Minnesota motorists have been hurt in crashes this year.
That's what led the Safety Council to develop a slew of resources employers can use to promote safe driving behaviors. The council will host a free webinar "Traffic Safety — Have the Conversation" at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
"Employees are their most valuable asset," said Lisa Kons, the council's traffic safety program manager. "If they are traveling and are injured or killed in a crash, it affects them as an employer. Have that conversation and send a valuable message."
Becky Schumann, the safety and risk management coordinator for Olmsted County in southeastern Minnesota, said she's seen aggressive driving behavior skyrocketing on Hwy. 52. When cars crash into guardrails, "the sound is horrific," she said.
She learned about the Safety Council's new campaign and immediately downloaded e-mails and social media blasts and sent them to the county's 1,300 workers. The effort, in partnership with the Sheriff's Office, will continue over the next few weeks and will include a safety newsletter later this week, Schumann said.
"This is high priority," she said. "What you do outside of work is as important as what you do while at work. It's important to get people home to their families safely. I need them to be aware and be top of mind."
Others, like Minnetonka-based Cargill, had already been preaching safe driving to employees. The company enacted a no-cellphone-use policy while driving in 2017. The company also has a safe driving policy as part of its "Put People First, Zero Harm" safety commitment and once a year conducts training from courses it has developed. This year's training takes place next week, the company said.
Hodges, the DPS assistant commissioner, wonders if people take motor vehicle fatalities as seriously as other types of deaths, such as shootings.
"If we were talking about 400 deaths from other causes, maybe there would be an adverse reaction from the public," he said. But all deaths, he said, have the "sound of hearts shattering … the same cry. I hope everybody pays attention to these deaths as much as other deaths."
There have been a lot more this year. Traffic deaths are up 23% through Monday compared with the same date last year. At the current pace, Minnesota could record about 475 traffic fatalities this year, the most since the 510 in 2007, DPS said.
The state has not had 400 fatalities in a year since 2015, and not that many this early in the year since 2007, DPS said.
Speeding is the leading factor, followed by impaired driving (95), lack of seat belts (80) and distraction (18). Deaths include 61 motorcyclists, 44 pedestrians and seven bicyclists.
Hennepin County has had the most fatalities with 57, followed by Ramsey with 30, Anoka 16, Stearns 15, Dakota and Douglas with 13 each, and St. Louis with 12, DPS said.
When the pandemic hit and stay-home orders were issued, Langer and many in law enforcement thought traffic deaths would plummet with people driving fewer miles. But the opposite happened. Crashes and fatalities have spiked, and risk-taking has continued, not just in Minnesota, but nationwide.
Deaths and crashes could be dramatically reduced and perhaps eliminated if motorists simply obeyed the speed limit, wore their seat belts, and didn't drive while impaired or distracted, Langer said.
"I'm confident we will get back on track, but it can't happen soon enough," Langer said.
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768