Roads in the Twin Cities metro area became far more dangerous after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as motorists drove faster, eschewed seat belts and got behind the wheel while impaired by alcohol or drugs, according to newly released state data.

Crashes resulting in serious injury or death spiked between 2020 and 2022, effectively erasing a decade of steady declines. Traffic safety experts and advocates say they hope the two-year period was an anomaly as they work toward an ambitious goal of cutting Twin Cities traffic fatalities from 182 to 72 by 2025.

Traffic deaths statewide hit 488 in 2021 and 446 last year, after five straight years below 400. The goal is to cut that number to 225 by 2025.

"We have more work to do," said state traffic engineer Mark Wagner, who compiled crash data presented at last week's Toward Zero Deaths conference in Brooklyn Center. "If it was a random spike, that would be great news."

There is some encouraging news: 2023 is off to a better start, with crashes resulting in serious injury or death trending down, Wagner said. As of Monday, year-to-date traffic deaths totaled 87 compared with 110 at this time last year.

But with the heavy travel season between Memorial Day and Labor Day — often labeled the "100 Deadliest Days of Summer" — yet to come, Wagner said it will take everybody to keep the roads safe.

"We can't drive as fast as we want," he said in an interview. "We all need to do our part."

Speeding and impairment were the leading factors that fueled a 49% rise in traffic deaths in the metro area from 2020 to 2022, rising from 122 to 182. In the same time period, crashes that left people seriously injured jumped from 696 to 951, a 36% increase, according to the state data.

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) defines a serious injury as one that prevents a person from continuing activities they were was capable of performing before the injury occurred, such as walking or driving.

Other factors that contributed to the rise in serious injuries and fatalities included a big jump in the number of unlicensed drivers who ended up in a mishap. From 2017 to 2019, 142 drivers without a valid license were involved in crashes resulting in a serious injury or fatality. That number rose to 222 over the next three years.

However, the data does not differentiate between those who didn't hold a license and those whose license expired and were unable to renew during the pandemic lockdown.

"It was not just scofflaws getting into a car without a license," Wagner said.

Fatal and serious injury crashes involving drivers under age 25 also increased — to 142 between 2020 and 2022, compared with 117 in the three years before. Wrecks involving older drivers fell slightly, the data said.

Wrecks involving motorcyclists rose slightly while fatal and serious injury crashes involving bicyclists remained nearly flat from 2020 to 2022, the data said.

And while deaths and injuries rose on state highways and county and township roads, city streets became slightly safer, with serious injury and fatal crashes dropping from 313 between 2017 and 2019 to 296 during the pandemic years.

Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) is a state program that aims to reduce traffic crashes, injuries and deaths on Minnesota roads through education, enforcement, improved engineering and fast medical emergency and trauma services. Since its inception in 2002, TZD has helped cut metro fatalities 10% and statewide fatalities 32% by promoting traffic safety and working with partners to install safety features such as roundabouts, rumble strips, better pavement markings and cable median barriers, according to the state..

In 2002, Minnesota saw 657 fatalities. "You would think it would be impossible to get that under 450 in 20 years," Wagner said. "It was hard before, but we found a way. I think we can get there again."