Vehicle crashes leading to death and injury dropped markedly over the past five years in Minnesota's 37 largest cities.

The number of serious accidents in those cities — which have populations of 25,000 or more — fell by 8.7 percent from 2008 to 2012, with an average year-to-year decline of 2.2 percent, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

The key to the decline? Driver behavior, the DPS says. And police are working to improve it further by focusing on "speed, [seat]belts, booze and distractions," as one state official put it.

Their methods include issuing more tickets, dedicating officers to full-time traffic enforcement and publicizing upcoming crackdowns on speeding and drunken or distracted driving. Education is part of the effort, too.

"Based on statewide trends that show a great reduction in fatal and injury crashes during the past decade, Minnesota roads have become safer," said department spokesman Nathan Bowie. "This progress includes city roads."

However, Bowie cautioned that final 2012 statewide data will show a slight rise in fatalities over 2011 and that 2013 figures also are "trending up."

In the Twin Cities metro area, Champlin saw the biggest drop in death and injury crashes from 2008 to 2012, with an average year-to-year decline of 7.9 percent, second in the state to Duluth (8.3 percent).

Champlin had 35 fatal and injury crashes in 2012, down from 50 in 2008. Police Chief Dave Kolb attributed much of the reduction to public awareness that more tickets are being issued by officers, one of whom has been assigned full-time to traffic enforcement since 2008.

Working the roads

Champlin Police Officer Jeff Brown has his radar speed gun trained on drivers during morning or evening rush hours on Hwy. 169 every day that he's on duty.

"You are working the red-light runners, the drivers in a hurry," Brown said. "To make sure the intersections are safe, they are ticketed or warned."

He sees people on cellphones or otherwise distracted whose speeds head up. He recently tagged a driver going 56 miles per hour on a 30-mph side street.

"That's dangerous. It only takes a second for a child to be on a bike and lose his balance or drive into the right of way," Brown said.

Speeding tickets start at $142 and jump to $212 for drivers going 15 miles an hour or more over the limit in Champlin. "Citations have more of an effect on driving behavior" than warnings, Brown said.

He and other officers issue 5,000 to 6,000 tickets a year, up from 4,600 in 2007, said Chief Kolb. A survey of Champlin residents last year by Decision Resources showed they were well aware of traffic enforcement efforts. About 73 percent said enforcement was "about right," while 22 percent felt it was "too much," Kolb said.

Efforts elsewhere

Duluth saw fatal and injury crashes drop from 479 in 2008 to 334 in 2012. The city has had a full-time officer assigned to enforcement for the past two years, and works with the State Patrol to publicize enforcement crackdowns aimed at high crash and crime areas, said Police Lt. Leigh Wright.

Eden Prairie, which had a 6 percent year-to-year reduction in death and injury crashes, uses Facebook, Twitter and a city blog to promote targeted enforcement efforts launched every two weeks, said Sgt. Tom Lowery, head of an enforcement unit with four full-time members. It also often teams up with the State Patrol and neighboring cities for crackdowns on seat belt use, speeding and impaired or distracted driving, he said. Eden Prairie drivers seem to be listening: 92 percent wear belts, Lowery said.

Woodbury, with a 5.7 percent year-to-year crash rate reduction, best in the east metro, also partners with other cities and joins in the state's Toward Zero Death programs, said Officer Scott Melander. His full-time enforcement work includes writing tickets and teaching in elementary and high schools.

Improvement not universal

Twenty-three of the 37 cities in the DPS data showed average annual reductions in fatal and injury crashes. Minneapolis had a 1 percent annual decline over the four years.

Fourteen other cities had average yearly increases in serious crashes. They ranged from St. Paul, with a barely higher rate, to Apple Valley, where the number rose from 154 in 2008 to 180 last year, with rises and falls along the way.

Apple Valley Police Capt. Michael Marben said a variety of factors may have been at play. There was a major reconstruction in the past two years on Cedar Avenue S. for the Bus Rapid Transit system, work that detoured motorists to slower-moving side streets, he noted.

In addition, the city has had 48 officers since 2010, two fewer than before, he said. He also noted that traffic citations fell since 2008 by almost 1,700 tickets, to 7,891 in 2012. Still, two Apple Valley officers spend most of their time enforcing traffic rules, and the city joins periodic crackdowns with other Dakota County cities, Marben noted.

The city of 50,000 also has thousands of residents driving to work in other cities each day. Recent U.S. census data put the number at about 13,000, second-highest in the metro area, behind only neighboring Lakeville, at 15,000. Yet, Lake­ville, population 57,300, had a 3.6 percent drop in average annual crashes since 2008.

Bowie of the DPS said there are too many local variables for analysts to discern why some cities have fewer fatal and injury crashes and others have more.

"But what we do know is that unsafe driver behavior is the primary reason for crashes, and when drivers make safe, smart decisions, crashes and resulting tragedies can be prevented," Bowie said. "The leading crash factors each year are distractions, failure to yield and unsafe speeds."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658