Minnesota is bucking national trends when it comes to fatal motor vehicle crashes — and not in a good way.
The death toll on state roads totaled 314 as of Tuesday, a number that's rising at a time when road fatalities are going down across the country. That figure includes six people who died in crashes on state roads Monday and Tuesday, according to preliminary data from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
In 2019, the state didn't record its 300th fatality until Oct. 29.
"We have had a very bad year for traffic fatalities," said Booker Hodges, assistant public safety commissioner.
There are fewer drivers on the road largely due to COVID-19, and deaths nationally have fallen 2% during the first half of 2020 over last year, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Nationwide, traffic deaths fell for the third straight year in 2019 to just over 36,000.
But the national rate for traffic fatalities is higher this year, with 1.25 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with 1.1 fatalities last year, the NHTSA said.
Nearly a third of the fatal wrecks in Minnesota have resulted from speeding, which prompted Hodges to issue a stern warning to drivers.
"We share a latitude with Germany, but we don't have an autobahn in Minnesota," he said during a snowy news conference in Rochester. "We need people to slow the hell down."
Speed has been a factor in 94 deadly wrecks while alcohol played a role in 90 crashes, the two most common causes. Another 77 victims were not wearing seat belts, and 24 crashes were the result of a distracted driver, officials said.
Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson found the numbers troubling but not surprising.
"I've been in law enforcement for 40 years and I've never seen a sudden change in behavior in all my time," he said.
This spring alone, the State Patrol reported a 150% increase in drivers caught going 100 mph or faster.
Traffic safety officials set up more than 300 empty chairs Tuesday on the lawn at Soldier's Field in Rochester to symbolize the lives that have been lost on state roads.
One was for Dylan Delaney, 17, the state's first traffic fatality of 2020.
He died Jan. 1 when the vehicle he was riding in collided with a semitrailer truck in Mabel in southeastern Minnesota.
His mother, Sarah, an EMT, responded to the crash. She looked inside the vehicle, saw "wild hair that looked familiar" and a bracelet she recognized, and realized one of the victims was her son.
"Our family will have an empty chair at the table," Sarah Delaney said at the news conference. "I'd give anything to have him walk through the door and start arguing with his sisters.
"Slow down, put the phone away, drive sober and drive sober. Drive seriously and drive smart."
Another teen in that wreck, Spencer Douglas, 15, died several days later.
Since then, fatalities have occurred in 70 of the state's 87 counties. The most have been in Hennepin with 39, followed by Ramsey, 16; St. Louis, 15; Anoka, 14; and Olmsted, 11. More than two-thirds of the fatal crashes occurred outside the metro area, according to state data.
The deaths include 191 occupants of motor vehicles, 54 motorcyclists, 35 pedestrians and nine bicyclists. All categories show an increase over 2019 numbers.
"I am frustrated and sad because of the actions people are taking on roads right now," said Lt. Rochelle Schrofer of the State Patrol. "Those decisions are killing people on our roadways."
Law enforcement and traffic safety officials called on drivers to make smart choices behind the wheel.
"Enforcement is not the only answer," Torgerson said. "I pray we have no more deaths and we will stand up to this pandemic of bad choices."