After years of safety gains, Minnesota took a giant step backward in 2021 with 497 people dying in traffic crashes, a 14-year high.

The deaths included a doctor, a DNR conservation officer, moms and dads, teenagers and toddlers, with many of them, according to law enforcement, dying in crashes that happened because motorists chose to speed, drink or use drugs, were distracted or drove without buckling up.

For Sarah Risser, who became a traffic-safety advocate after she lost her 18-year-old son, Henry, in a violent head-on collision three years ago this month, those are the stories that get lost in the numbers.

"These are beloved human beings losing their lives," said Risser, who organized the Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims event at the State Capitol in November to call on lawmakers and safety officials to take decisive action to make the state's roads safer. "We need to move beyond statistics. People are looking at this as a public health crisis."

With the onset of the pandemic, many drivers believed police stopped enforcing traffic laws, a huge myth that led to a rise in risky driving, said Mike Hanson, director of the state's Office of Traffic Safety.

Speeding was the leading contributing factor to deadly crashes in Minnesota in 2021, accounting for 162 fatalities, DPS data show. Motorists who didn't wear seat belts (109) and crashes attributed to alcohol use (124) and distracted driving (24) also led to the sharp increase from the 394 deaths in 2020 and pushed last year's total significantly higher than the yearly average of 378 between 2016 and 2020.

The huge jump in fatalities in Minnesota last year comes as the nation's roads also turned more deadly. The U.S. Department of Transportation in October said more than 20,160 people died in motor vehicle crashes between January and June last year. That was nearly a 20% increase from the same period in 2020 and marked the largest increase in any six-month period since the department's reporting system began 46 years ago.

"This is a crisis," United States Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement in October. "We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America."

A state of shock

Like many drivers, Risser often drove 5 to 10 mph over the speed limit without giving it much thought. Then her world stopped two years ago when a driver who failed to properly hook up a trailer lost control, crossed the centerline on Hwy. 63 near Hayward, Wis., and slammed into her vehicle.

The impact "was like a bomb going off," Risser said. The car hurdled out of control and struck a tree. Henry died at the scene. Sarah suffered a shattered wrist but survived what she described as "the most horrifying moment" of her life.

"To lose a child is hard — you really walk around in state of shock for a really long time," she said.

"We are so deep into car culture that we accept fatalities as business as usual," said Risser, who now follows speed limits. "I work on road-safety advocacy because I lost my son. And since then, nothing has changed. I want our world to be safer. I want that to be his legacy."

Nationally, traffic safety officials are concerned with shifts in driver behavior since the pandemic began. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that average speeds increased during the last three quarters of 2020, and extreme speeds — those 20 mph over the posted speed limit — became more common. The agency also found the number of motorists traveling without a seat belt was higher than during pre-pandemic times, according to behavior research findings from March 2020 to June 2021.

To combat the increases, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it will roll out its first ever National Roadway Safety Strategy. The plan, to be released later this month, will identify action steps for everyone working to save lives on the road, Buttigieg said.

Hanson said he is cautiously optimistic that whatever comes out of Washington will bring additional resources to Minnesota to beef up education and enforcement, and provide other means to bring fatality numbers down.

Regardless, he said the Office of Traffic Safety plans to redouble its efforts in the coming months by fine-tuning and sharpening its social media messages to focus on speeders and "Minnesotans who can't take two seconds to put a seat belt on." And motorists can expect to see more frequent enforcement campaigns, he said.

But Risser said it's going to take more than that. She wants the Minnesota Department of Transportation to make safe driving intuitive by putting in more centerline rumble strips and installing more roundabouts to slow drivers down. She also wants the Legislature to increase fines for distracted driving and enact "meaningful" consequences for other offenses such as drunken driving.

"The trend we are seeing is a result of past policies," Risser said. "Government officials must seize the moment and move beyond a public message campaign."

Correction: Previous versions of this story mischaracterized how long ago Sarah Risser lost her son Henry in a fatal crash. It was three years ago.