Keeping Minnesota's roads safe: Deadly crashes are trending down

Minnesota is seeing fewer crashes on roads compared to the same time last year, but traffic safety officials hesitate to call this "positive" or "good," as the number of crashes is still up since the pandemic and with nearly 300 lives taken on roads so far this year.

If you think back to 2020, there were fewer crashes because there were fewer people on the roads, as most of us were working from home. Fast-forward to now, where traffic across the state is actually ahead of pre-pandemic levels. As more people started commuting again, the number of deadly crashes skyrocketed due to a significant increase in high-risk driving behaviors like extreme speeding, distracted driving, and driving under the influence.

To break down the numbers from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety, there were 394 traffic-related deaths in 2020 and 488 in 2021. As of Friday, Sept, 22, that number was at 288, about 40 fewer fatalities compared to the same time last year.

If there’s one thing about Minnesotans, it’s that they know how to take advantage of our short summers. It’s a popular time to head up north and explore the great outdoors. But Mike Hanson, the Director of the Office of Traffic Safety, says that comes with its own set of challenges.

"There’s two seasons in Minnesota, we have winter and we have road construction. Both bring challenges to drivers in the state. During the warm, summer months when road construction is taking place, we do pay attention to those construction zones. They’re very dangerous and dynamic, meaning they’re always changing and you never know what to expect. There are also an awful lot of people who are working on our roads and exposed to the dangers of passing traffic when they’re out there doing that," Hanson said.

Traffic safety officials say the transition period from summer to fall, however, is actually when they see the most severe crashes in the state. It all comes down to good road conditions and speed.

"The one thing that affects crash outcome is speed because speed is energy and energy is what causes injury and death. So when we have good, clear open roads, drivers tend to drive faster. So when you bring that much speed, that much energy into the collision, the results are going to be that much more significant," said Hanson.

It’s different from the winter-driving mindset that we’re familiar with nine months out of the year when drivers are on high alert and tend to go slower to avoid spinning out on slick roads. 

"Winter is another thing, it’s something we have absolutely no control over, it’s all Mother Nature. And we do see a big increase in the number of crashes that take place in November, December, January, February into March. But the thing is, the number of crashes go up, but the severity goes down, and it goes down significantly and there’s one reason for that. The speed goes down. Minnesota drivers know when slippery season is upon us, you have to slow down, you have to give yourself more room and time," Hanson said.

Hanson also says more crashes usually happen during this transitional period because we’re getting used to what we haven’t seen in the summer, like reduced daylight and increased traffic with more people commuting to work and school being back in session.

With high-risk driving behaviors also on the rise in Minnesota, the Office of Traffic Safety says its research team is working on a couple of projects to keep our roads safe.

"We are in the midst of conducting a study on how we can implement speed safety cameras in Minnesota. What do we need to do legally, the best process to use to hold drivers accountable for that, and how do we implement this in a way that’s equitable and fair and effective? We’re looking at ways that we can implement cameras in work and school zones and we know this is a proven strategy. Other states that have adopted this have had very good success. In Europe, they’re widely used and are very effective at helping drivers understand that they need to obey the speed limit because the sanctions can be pretty hefty in some cases," Hanson said.

Since cannabis was legalized only a few months ago, Hanson says it’s still too early to tell how many people are getting behind the wheel high. But he says a pilot project is underway for an oral fluid roadside test that would test drivers for six types of drugs, including THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. That test could be in the hands of law enforcement as soon as next month.