Minnesota has seen a big jump in roadway fatalities in the past two years, and state officials say speed is the chief reason.
The increase is unprecedented, said Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety and one of three co-chairs of Toward Zero Deaths, an initiative that coordinates efforts of the Transportation, Health and Public Safety departments to reduce roadway fatalities and serious injuries.
Since the program’s formation in 2003, traffic fatalities have fallen 24%, from a high of 657 to a low of 358 five years ago.
But roadway deaths have surged the past two years with a preliminary number of 498 for 2021, even as the number of crashes and of miles driven dropped.
“What we saw are dangerous driving behaviors that took root in the early days of the pandemic,” Hanson said.
Speed is the biggest factor, he said.
The number of fatalities where speed was a contributing factor more than doubled since 2019, from 73 to 162.
Col. Matt Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, reported a three-fold increase in speeding tickets for people going more than 100 mph between 2019 and 2021.
Unbelted fatalities also increased (from 73 to 109). However, impairment as a contributing factor is holding steady, and distraction is trending down.
“I think it (hands-free law) is making a difference,” Langer said.
Toward Zero Deaths attacks the problem with its four Es: education, enforcement, engineering and emergency services.
TZD started new and strong messaging in 2020, partnering with the Department of Public Safety communications office.
MnDOT built safety features such as rumblestrips, raised visibility of signs, high tension cable median barriers, wider edgelines, intersection constrictors and roundabouts to slow speeds and change angle of impact in the case of a crash.
Rep. Connie Bernardy (DFL-New Brighton) asked MNDOT leaders about safety engineering, saying it felt like old systems focused on moving cars as fast as possible rather than as safely as possible.
Some money in the federal infrastructure bill targets safety improvements.
Rep. John Petersburg (R-Waseca) talked about driver behavior, that a car is a potential weapon if handled irresponsibly.
“We have to spend a lot more time developing awareness,” he said.