Fewer people are driving, so why are the worst roadway crashes on the rise?
Experts say risk-taking is one of the reasons for a statewide increase in fatal and serious injury crashes.
DULUTH — Paramedics didn’t need the numbers to know what they sensed as fatal- and serious-injury crashes climbing this year in Minnesota.
“Trauma-related response requests are up all over Minnesota and the services in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin have been feeling it all year,” Adam Shadiow said. “So the latest data published by our Toward Zero Deaths colleagues confirming this is not surprising.”
Shadiow is the executive director for the Arrowhead Emergency Medical Services Association.
Forum News Service spoke last week with agencies involved in crash responses to try to figure out why roadway deaths and serious, life-altering injuries were increasing during a pandemic that produced fewer drivers.
There were 314 roadway fatalities statewide as of early last week, a number that wasn’t triggered in 2019 until the end of October.
Risk-taking stood out as a major factor.
“We’re seeing drivers take risks when it comes to speed and distracted driving; impaired driving is up to where it was pre-pandemic,” Minnesota State Patrol spokesman Lt. Gordon Shank said. “The sheer fact there was less traffic meant more people were more willing to take risks.”
Toward Zero Deaths is a statewide initiative among the departments of public health, safety and transportation and has resulted in a steady decline in roadway fatalities across the past 15-plus years — cutting deaths by 40% from an average of 610 roadway deaths per year in the years before the effort was started.
Toward Zero Deaths uses roadway messaging to drive home safety pointers and funds overtime for extra enforcement for impaired and distracted driving, as well as seat belt use.
“When we had the stay-at-home order, we started seeing fatalities going up and that just didn’t make sense,” said Holly Kostrzewski, Toward Zero Deaths coordinator for northern Minnesota. “We were supposed to be hunkering down.”
Kostrzewski added that she gets regular reports from law enforcement, and said it’s not uncommon to hear about people driving 70 mph in a 40 mph zone, or frequent reports of drivers going 100 mph on highways.
Eric DeVoe is a senior researcher in MnDOT’s Office of Traffic Engineering. He began tracking the rise in serious injuries and fatalities in March, when traffic volumes were at their pandemic lowest, down 66%.
Total crashes, many of which are those fender benders that occur in everyday life, paralleled the dips in traffic volume, he said.
“In March and April, we saw about 50% fewer (total) crashes versus last year,” Devoe said.
It’s only been serious and fatal crashes that have been on the rise.
“In the summer is when we saw things take off,” DeVoe said, describing an annual 8% reduction in fatal crashes swinging to a 5% increase.
He identified three areas in which the worst crashes were rising: speed-related crashes, in which physics work against the human body, impaired crashes, though not to the same degree as speed, and crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists.
“There are more people out,” DeVoe surmised.
October is generally the deadliest month for pedestrians. But this year, it’s brought better news.
“To date, we don’t really have that yet,” DeVoe said. “We’re below last year. We had a struggle through the beginning of spring into the middle of summer.”
Kostrzewski likes to be out and walking. She wears bright colors and, because of the nature of her job, she likes to observe drivers.
“People aren’t looking at me,” she said. “They’re not making eye contact and that’s scary. I always notice who sees me. Are people just so stressed with multiple stressors?”
Her question rings in the air. It makes sense for the way 2020 has brought a confluence of challenges most generations of people haven’t seen, including a pandemic, political volatility and an economic recession.
For Shank and the others, solutions come in multiple forms.
“We can’t just enforce our way out of this,” Shank said.
They’re reaching out to high schools to further educate young drivers. They’re encouraging people who are drinking to make a plan. They're asking pedestrians and cyclists to make sure they wear or mount reflective articles that make them seen. And they’re following up on complaints of high speeds.
“We never know if we prevent a fatal crash,” Shank said.
As of last week, there were 90 alcohol-related fatalities compared to 93 at the same time in 2019.
“You’re going to have to call somebody anyway if you get arrested for (driving under the influence),” Shank said. “Make a call before that happens.”
For those who have to come upon the crash sites, the year has been a difficult one.
“It’s hard to see this,” Shank said. “It weighs heavily on the troopers and the families.”
Shadiow, the paramedic, agreed.
“It is preventable,” he said. “It seems too easy, but we can greatly reduce the number of roadway deaths and severity of injuries by simply using the safety mechanisms built in the vehicle properly, and driving our cars and trucks at a safe speed.”