Alarming rise in Minnesota crash deaths leads to refocused safety approaches

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.

Troopers from the Minnesota State Patrol work at the scene of a two-car crash near Rochester in 2021.
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MANKATO — Transportation safety groups such as Minnesota's Toward Zero Deaths had reasons to be cheered the past decade or more.

From 2003-2014, traffic-related deaths declined by 45% in the state, but then plateaued from 2014 through 2019. Safety experts were hoping to nudge those plateau numbers down; instead they were jolted by seeing serious crashes and deaths shoot up dramatically in 2020 and 2021.

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.

"I wish we were still on the plateau," Max Moreland, traffic safety crash data engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said during a TZD conference Thursday in Mankato.

The spike in serious crashes and deaths led TZD to last year refocus its efforts, including working toward a "Safe System" approach and creating a traffic-safety culture.


Will Stein, a safety and design engineer with the Federal Highway Administration, said the agency is moving aggressively toward adopting a Safe System approach, which he said is a new way of viewing highway safety.

"Countries that have adopted this have really seen benefits." He said several countries saw 50% to 70% reductions in fatalities.

Stein said much of past safety focuses have been on improving highways, enforcement and educating drivers. But he said humans make mistakes and there will always be crashes. So instead, the focus of a Safe System is knowing crashes will occur but looking for ways to reduce serious injuries and deaths when crashes happen.

That includes five core elements: safe road users, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads and post-crash care.

Kristine Hernandez, TZD program coordinator, said Minnesota is still considered a leader in highway safety despite the recent spike in serious crashes and deaths, a trend occurring across the country.

She said the group is working to get dedicated funding from the Legislature to allow it to provide grants and fund safety programs. TZD is also working to build new partnerships and provide more support to the different TZD regions in Minnesota.

While the recent numbers have gone the wrong way, Hernandez said that since the group started in the early 2000s, thousands fewer deaths have occurred in Minnesota. And she is confident a new focus will be successful in sending death and serious crash numbers down.

"Change takes time, but we have to continue building on our successes."


The conference brought together more than 70 regional traffic safety stakeholders including law enforcement, engineers, educators, emergency medical and trauma services as well as local leaders. It was hosted by the Minnesota Departments of Public Safety, Health and Transportation.

(c)2022 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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