Minnesota traffic fatalities were up 6% in 2018 even though state totals trended downward over a five-year period, according to the Department of Public Safety’s annual crash report released Friday.
The crash facts summary — a compilation of data from law enforcement agencies that identifies how, why and where crashes occurred as well as who was involved — aims to inform future safety initiatives to change motorist behavior.
“We know there are strategies that are more effective than others,” said Mike Hanson, director of the department’s Office of Traffic Safety. “We can’t just solve everything with a hammer.”
Heading into the busy Labor Day weekend, 2019’s numbers are ahead of 2018’s pace. There have been 223 traffic deaths so far this year, compared with 218 at this time last year. Unbelted motorists account for the most deaths, with 41. The number of pedestrian deaths has jumped from 18 at this time last year to 25 so far this year.
The pedestrian deaths are especially concerning to Hanson as fall and winter loom.
“We see a significant uptick as daylight hours get shorter,” he said. Preventing those deaths requires pedestrians — as well as drivers — to pay more attention to where they’re going, he said.
The 116-page state report is laden with charts, graphs and narrative that slice and dice and present crash information from all sorts of angles — time of day for bike crashes, the age of drivers who run red lights, teen-involved crashes by month, and many others.
Over the years, that data has led to successes. Hanson said installation of cable medians on divided rural highways has nearly eliminated wrong-way crashes on those roads.
In 2018, the top four causes of traffic deaths in Minnesota remained the same: speeding (113), failure to wear a seat belt (96), impaired driving (84) and distracted driving (29).
Hanson said that only about 7% of drivers don’t wear seat belts. Those unbelted drivers consistently account for about 30% of the motorist fatalities, he said.
It’s illegal not to wear a seat belt, but education can’t reach everyone. “It’s so simple,” he said. In particular, young, unmarried men who drive pickup trucks are “difficult to reach” and flout the seat belt law, among other restrictions, he said.
In another category, Hanson said, the data probably doesn’t draw the whole picture. Distracted driving is difficult to prove, so deaths from cellphone use are likely counted in a different category, he said.
A new law could help get a better understanding in that area.
On Aug. 1, the hands-free cellphone law took effect, barring drivers from holding phones or electronic devices. The law previously had banned texting behind the wheel. Now, drivers “cannot have that cellphone in their hand period,” Hanson said.
The first offense for breaking the hands-free law will cost the driver $50, with subsequent violations costing $275. Court costs can be added.
Good and bad news
The report summary was relatively upbeat about the numbers, despite the overall uptick.
The five-year traffic fatality average is down 4%. From 2009 to 2013, Minnesota saw an average of 396 deaths per year. From 2014 to 2018, that average decreased to 381 deaths annually.
There were 381 road deaths last year, up from 358 deaths in 2017. On an average day last year, one person was killed and 76 were injured in traffic accidents.
Most of those who died last year, 258, were motorists. There were 58 motorcycle and 45 pedestrian fatalities. Nine all-terrain vehicle riders died as did seven bicyclists, one commercial bus driver and three on other kinds of vehicles.
Of the fatalities, 123 involved drinking — defined as any evidence of alcohol detected in a driver, pedestrian or bicyclist.
There were 84 drunken-driving fatalities, defined as involving a driver with a blood alcohol content of .08% or above. That’s the most such fatalities since 2015, when there were 95.
The report said 26,414 people were caught driving under the influence. One in seven Minnesota drivers has a conviction for driving while under the influence, the study said.
Overall in 2018, there were 79,215 traffic crashes involving 146,107 motor vehicles and 172,908 people. In addition to those killed, 27,877 were injured.
Also Friday, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety announced that red-light running fatalities hit a 10-year high nationally in 2017. The foundation reported 939 deaths that year in the United States from running red lights, an increase of 28% since 2012.
About half of those who died in red-light running crashes were passengers or people in other vehicles, and about 5% were pedestrians or bicyclists. Some 35% were the drivers who ran the light.
The foundation urged drivers to reduce red-light crashes by hovering a foot over the brake pedal when preparing to enter an intersection, and taking a moment to make sure the intersection has cleared when the light turns green. In Minnesota, many traffic lights have a numeric countdown to indicate when a light will change from green to yellow.