A simple walk to the grocery store can be dangerous on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
With logging trucks regularly speeding along busy Hwy. 2 at 65 miles per hour, residents who can’t afford a car put themselves at risk by walking to the store along the road’s narrow shoulder.
In the past five years, five pedestrians have been killed on roadways on the sprawling northern Minnesota reservation, according to tribal officials.
“That’s their mode of transportation,” said Art Chase, the Leech Lake Band’s transportation director. “We want to save lives. One death is too many.”
A recent study found that pedestrian safety is a critical but underrecognized issue on reservations, with residents who walk to get to their destinations at a greater risk of getting struck by a car than those living in other rural Minnesota communities.
“Outside the reservations, it’s been received with some surprise,” social science researcher Kathy Quick said of the report, adding that it confirms what tribal members already knew about pedestrian safety. “It’s a really high-stakes public issue.”
Quick, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and anthropologist Guillermo Narváez spent four years analyzing national transportation safety data and interviewing residents on four of the state’s 11 reservations — Leech Lake, Red Lake, Fond du Lac and Mille Lacs. The study was conducted for the Roadway Safety Institute, a consortium of Midwestern universities that researches issues related to traffic safety.
Nationally, vehicle crashes are the leading cause of unintentional injury for Indians under the age of 44 — a rate higher than any other ethnic or racial group in the United States.
In Minnesota, the state’s Department of Public Safety said it only has limited data related to pedestrian crashes on reservations, so it wasn’t able to release specific statistics on the issue. Even so, Quick said, nationally, crashes on reservations are vastly underreported.
Pedestrian safety is a key part of road safety on reservations, Quick and Narváez wrote in their final report, which was released in October. That’s because more residents are likely to get around on foot on reservations than in other rural regions of the state.
“It’s just a reality of living on the reservations,” Narváez said.
Quick and Narváez hope the report dispels misconceptions — such as impaired driving being the cause of high Indian mortality rates. Tribal members also said that since federal, state and local roads often cross reservation land, more collaboration among officials from all levels of government is needed to keep pedestrians safe.
U.S. Hwy. 169, for instance, runs through the Mille Lacs reservation, and it’s not uncommon for people to cross it on foot. A Mille Lacs law enforcement officer told researchers that there have been five to 10 pedestrian accidents in the past decade on the busy highway.
“It is getting policymakers’ attention,” Quick said of the data. “It’s really a major public safety issue.”
Tribal members at the four reservations told the study’s researchers that more investment is needed for safer infrastructure, signs, enforcement and traffic safety education.
At Leech Lake, that’s exactly what the tribe is doing, working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation as well as Cass and Itasca counties to build three bike trails. The reservation, which houses about half of Leech Lake’s 9,500 members, is also working with MnDOT to build three more trails, each about 2 miles long, later this year on Hwy. 2.
“Even during the day, it’s a dangerous road,” Chase said of that stretch of Hwy. 2. “Building trails is working.”