Fatal crashes are on the rise in Minnesota

Workshop held in Granite Falls looks for answers on trending data

Photo by Deb Gau Research analyst Eric DeVoe shares crash data for southwest Minnesota during a Toward Zero Deaths workshop on Thursday. In 2021, factors like impaired driving, speeding, not using seatbelts and distracted driving all had an impact on fatal and injury crashes.

GRANITE FALLS — For the past few years, it looked like the goal of reducing fatal crashes in Minnesota had hit a plateau. And when Minnesotans started staying home more during the COVID-19 pandemic, safety advocates had hoped there would be fewer serious crashes on the roads.

“We anticipated our fatalities would go down, but they actually spiked,” said Kristine Hernandez, state coordinator of the Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) program.

“Now we wish we were on the plateau,” she said.

Preliminary crash data for 2021 shows 488 traffic deaths in Minnesota. That was the highest number of fatalities in the state since 2007, TZD coordinators said.

The question of what caused the spike in fatal crashes in 2020 and 2021 was at the center of a regional TZD workshop held at the Prairie’s Edge Casino convention center on Thursday.

The workshop brought together more than 60 traffic safety stakeholders from around southwest Minnesota. Participants included law enforcement officers, public health and safety educators, traffic engineers and emergency medical responders.

The southwest Minnesota workshop was one of several regional events being held around the state. There will be a statewide TZD conference in October, said Melissa Hjelle, southwest regional coordinator for TZD.

In Minnesota, traffic-related deaths declined between 2003 and 2014, and then the number of deaths began to plateau. However, in the past two years, the number of traffic deaths has started ticking up again, presenters said.

“We’ve been through a lot in the past two years, and it’s kind of shown up in our crash data,” said Eric DeVoe, a research analyst with the MnDOT office of traffic engineering. DeVoe went over some of the data to try and explain why traffic fatalities and injuries were on the rise.

In 2020, Minnesota saw a “massive” drop in the numbers of vehicles out on the road when a stay-at-home order was issued, he said.

“Beginning in March 2020, we see traffic volumes drop off,” DeVoe said.

He explained that in 2021, traffic volumes were returning to normal, but we’re still down, But at the same time that there were fewer cars on the road, there were more crash fatalities.

“We see this big drive up in single vehicle, run-off-the-road crashes,” DeVoe said. There was also a rise in work zone crashes.

In southwest Minnesota, factors like impairment, speeding and not wearing seat belts all were all involved in crashes.

DeVoe said the lack of traffic over the past couple of years could also have affected drivers’ behavior. Without other vehicles on the road, divers have fewer cues for safe speeds and following distance. The isolation could also affect drivers’ behavior.

“Boredom leads to higher speeds,” he said.

One way Minnesota could help prevent fatalities and serious injuries is by designing its road systems to help minimize the number of severe crashes, said Will Stein, a safety and design engineer with the Federal Highway Administration.

Other nations around the world, including Sweden and Australia, have decreased their traffic fatalities by taking a “safe system” approach, he said.

One example of the safe system approach in southwest Minnesota was the construction of J-turns at intersections in Willmar and Marshall. The turn lanes help prevent right-angle crashes from happening at highway intersections.

“In a lot of areas (southwest Minnesota) is kind of the leader in the state,” Stein said.

The pedestrian underpass connecting Marshall High School and the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University was another example of a project that helped reduce fatalities by keeping pedestrians and cyclists separate from traffic, Stein said.

Traffic safety advocates said state legislation could also help build a culture of safety. An omnibus bill passed by the Minnesota House of Representatives last week includes a provision for the creation of a new Traffic Safety Advisory Council.

Moving forward, safety advocates would also be looking at ways to build on Minnesotans’ values and attitudes to encourage safer driving behavior.

“Our focus is probably going to be on that cultural shift,” Hjelle said. However, she said organizers know it will take time to help make that shift.


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