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Minnesota transportation officials say changes in driver behavior making roads more dangerous

Traffic safety professionals who are part of the Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths initiative will be putting more emphasis on improving driver behavior.

A car drives into the city of Willmar near the Minnesota Highway 23 intersection with Kandiyohi County Road 24 and 23rd Street Northeast north of Willmar on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
A car drives into the city of Willmar near the Minnesota Highway 23 intersection with Kandiyohi County Road 24 and 23rd Street Northeast north of Willmar on Thursday, May 5, 2022. An engineer speaking at the Southwest Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths workshop Thursday cited the intersection — located near the Kandiyohi County Law Enforcement Center and Health and Human Services building — as an example of a design change that was successful in reducing serious accidents.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY — While traffic volumes in Minnesota dropped during the pandemic, the number of serious injury and fatal accidents rose.

Turning that around is going to take more than engineering. Driver behavior changed during the pandemic in ways that are being blamed for this uptick, and it’s gotten the attention of those looking to make Minnesota's roads safer.

“We’re impacted by what we see others doing,” said Eric DeVoe, senior research analyst, Minnesota Department of Transportation engineering. DeVoe was among speakers at the Southwest Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths workshop held Thursday at the Upper Sioux Community's Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort. The southwest region includes the 18 counties served by the District 8 MnDOT office in Willmar.

During COVID-19, traffic-related deaths soared to about 500 each of the past two years, up from the 350-400 average annual deaths the previous decade.

Since its start in 2003, the Toward Zero Deaths coalition of MnDOT, law enforcement and other entities in the state has seen success in improving safety on Minnesota roads. The initiative was launched when traffic fatalities in the state peaked at 657 in 2002. The Toward Zero Deaths effort is credited as being among the factors that had helped to bring the annual death rate on the state's roadways down to a low of 361 in 2012.

The number of fatalities had “plateaued” for several years before showing upticks in the past year. Preliminary data count 489 fatalities in 2021 statewide.

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Speakers at the regional workshop outlined two paths to improve safety.

They discussed efforts to promote safety through engineering approaches — everything from wider stripes along roads to requiring that new vehicles include forward collision warning devices.

From an engineering perspective, increased focus is being placed on intersections and their design. Will Stein, safety and design engineer, Federal Highway Administration, cited the change to the Minnesota Highway 23 intersection with Kandiyohi County Road 24 and 23rd Street Northeast — located near the Kandiyohi County Law Enforcement Center and Health and Human Services building north of Willmar — as an example of one of the success stories in reducing serious accidents.

But without a doubt, the pandemic has shown a need to put more emphasis on changing driver behaviors. Average speeds on the roads increased, as did impaired and distracted driving. The number of drivers wearing seat belts is believed to have dropped as well.

The southwest region saw a large increase in the share of crashes involving single vehicles driving off the road. They represented 49% of the crashes. Intersection collisions accounted for 38% and head-on crashes 11%.

In terms of driver behaviors, impairment was cited in 41% of the crashes and speed in 30%. Unbelted drivers were involved in 27% of the crashes and inattentive driving 7%.

The state and region also saw an uptick in the number of accidents involving pedestrians and motorcycles.

While the trends are concerning, workshop presenters emphasized that Minnesota can work to improve driver behaviors and road safety. “We have a traffic safety culture in Minnesota,” said Kristine Hernandez, program coordinator for Toward Zero Deaths. “What we need to do is enhance it.”

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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