We are only two months and a week into the new year and it’s already been bloody and deadly on Minnesota roads.

Last week a popular high school and community theater director died when he drifted over the centerline as he drove on a rural state highway. It was not immediately clear what caused Dennis Swanson’s car to veer into oncoming traffic. In another tragic case last week, a 22-year-old single mother was killed when a distracted driver lost control and flipped his vehicle, which landed on top of hers.

As of Friday, there have been 51 traffic fatalities on state roads — that’s 5.6 people a week and 20 more than at this time last year when 31 people had lost their lives. For the record, there were 409 deaths in all of 2015.

These are not just statistics. The victims are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children. And their deaths cause anguish and heartache that lasts for weeks, months and years.

In 2003, the state departments of public safety, transportation and health joined together to launch a multipronged program to reduce traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries through enforcement, education, better engineering, and efficient emergency response services. The Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) goal is to create a culture where deaths and injuries are no longer acceptable, said program coordinator Kristine Hernandez.

She points to programs and campaigns that have led to changes in attitudes toward smoking and recycling. She hopes that approach will work with motorists, too. “How many people recycle? Ten to 20 years ago nobody did,” Hernandez said. “It’s a cultural shift, and we can do that for traffic safety.”

Legislation is helping. Since TZD’s inception, the legal blood alcohol content was lowered from 0.1 to 0.08 percent. The state passed a primary seat belt law. Text­ing while driving is banned. More than 5,000 miles of rumble strips and 306 miles of cable median barriers have been added on state highways. More than 1,500 curves were improved through the use of chevrons, enhanced pavement markings and by widening narrow shoulders at high-risk curves.

2,000 lives saved

Since TZD began, traffic fatalities have decreased by 41 percent. Without those interventions, TZD estimates an additional 2,046 lives would have been lost on Minnesota roads over the last 10 years.

TZD’s latest effort is placing “Toward Zero Death” stickers on 3,275 state-owned vehicles. They also are showing up on North Memorial Medical Center’s 275 ambulances and nine helicopters. Safeway Driving School is affixing them to its fleet of 32 cars used for student drivers. Cemstone Ready Mix in Owatonna put them on their vehicles and Rochester City Lines has inquired about putting them on its buses, Hernandez said.

TZD has a goal of reducing traffic deaths to 300 or fewer by 2020 and ultimately down to zero. After last year’s uptick in fatalities and this year’s high number, TZD hopes the stickers will get motorists to make wise choices while behind the wheel. That means not driving while distracted or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, wearing seat belts and obeying the speed limit.

“Last year we had 409 deaths that were unnecessary,” Hernandez said. “We say how many family members do you want to die and would be an acceptable to number to you? Nobody wants to go through that.”


Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.