Heading into 2015, Minnesota roads seemed to be getting safer. But the decrease in traffic fatalities is on pace to end if the first half of the year is any indication.
So far this year, 198 people have died in traffic crashes. That is an increase of 21 percent from this time last year, when 164 people died. The 2014 total of 361 traffic deaths was the second lowest total since World War II.
"Sadly, the positive momentum we saw in 2014 is rapidly being erased," said Donna Berger, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety. "It's unacceptable."
On Thursday the department released its annual Crash Facts for 2014, a summary of traffic crashes compiled from reports from law enforcement throughout the state.
Motorcycle crashes have contributed to the sharp increase in fatalities this year. Preliminary numbers show that 37 motorcyclists have died this year, compared to 18 at this time last year.
Listed among the 198 deaths this year were a 73-year-old woman from Red Wing, a husband and wife married 42 years from Marshall, and two teenage brothers headed to a basketball tournament.
'Not just statistics'
"These fatalities have names," said Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman.
"They are real lives and not just statistics. I'm encouraging everybody to speak up about safe driving, buckle up, pay attention, plan for a sober ride home and slow down."
Of the motorists killed this year, 50 were not wearing seat belts. Men accounted for 142 of the fatalities. Twenty-three people were under age 21.
Most crashes (68 percent) occurred on sunny days when the pavement was dry, said Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol. The top three reasons for crashes were driver distraction, failure to yield the right of way and speeding.
"We are working toward having zero deaths, and the only acceptable number is when nobody dies," Langer said. "For us, true success is when we don't have to knock on the door of a loved one and tell them somebody is not coming home."
While the number of people who died in crashes dropped last year, the number of crashes increased by 1 percent to 78,396. More than 190,000 people — more than the population of Rochester and Brooklyn Park combined — were involved in a crash and 29,439 people were injured.
The numbers show that on average, 215 crashes happen daily on state roads, leading to 81 injuries and one death. Fatal crashes were more likely in rural areas, on Fridays through Sundays, and during morning and afternoon rush hours.
Panel looks for answers
A committee composed of public safety officials and representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation will meet Friday to study the data and use it to figure out how to curb the 2015 spike, Langer said.
This month, law enforcement is cracking down on speeding. Other campaigns this year have focused on drivers not wearing seat belts, texting while behind the wheel and driving while impaired.
"We use the term crash because accident implies that there was something random and unavoidable," Dohman said. "We believe that driving behavior and decisions made on the road determine if they and those around them will make it home safe."