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Toward Zero Deaths switches gears, targets Highway 371 in Crow Wing, Cass counties

East Central Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Regional Coordinator Tom Nixon (left) and Minnesota State Patrol Capt. Joe Dwyer face the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners at its Tuesday, March 26, meeting and discuss local efforts to prevent serious traffic injuries or fatalities. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 3
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Minnesota State Patrol Capt. Joe Dwyer (left) and East Central Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Regional Coordinator Tom Nixon give a presentation Tuesday, March 26, at the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners meeting about local efforts to prevent serious traffic injuries or fatalities. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 3

It's a list no county wants to be on, but Crow Wing County is pulling out all the stops, and putting on the brakes, when it comes to alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the county.

Minnesota State Patrol Capt. Joe Dwyer and East Central Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Regional Coordinator Tom Nixon discussed at the Tuesday, March 26, board meeting local efforts to reduce preventable traffic fatalities, especially along Highway 371.

"The Toward Zero Deaths program aims to get our deaths on our roadways to zero. ... Crow Wing County has been looked at as kind of the model to follow for a long time," Nixon told the board.

The leading cause of deaths and severe injuries in the East Central Minnesota region include lack of seat belt use, impaired driving, speed and aggressive driving, and inattentive driving.

"As one of the vacation destinations in the state of Minnesota, we also battle being on a list that we don't want to be on as one of the deadliest counties in the state of Minnesota. We're always trying to combat that, so we get together to ask, 'What is our next move?'" Dwyer said.

13 targeted counties include Crow Wing

Crow Wing County was among the 13 targeted counties, which are determined by the counties with the most combined number of drunk driving deaths and alcohol-related serious injuries during a five-year period, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

The Public Safety Department's Office of Traffic Safety reported nine drunk driving-related deaths, 24 suspected alcohol-related serious injuries, and 1,798 driving while intoxicated incidents in the county from 2012-16.

Dwyer talked about the Highway 210 Corridor Project in Cass and Crow Wing counties involving the Minnesota State Patrol, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office, and Baxter, Brainerd, Crosby and Deerwood police departments.

"We've established some corridor projects to really pool our resources and look at some of those problem areas and reverse some of those tragic trends that we've seen on our highway," Dwyer said. "Crow Wing County—and I don't say this lightly—it really is a shining star for traffic safety, and that's not something that one does by themselves but because of a great partnership with the sheriff's office ... and continue the progress that we're seeing."

The Highway 210 Corridor Project resulted in 2,227 combined traffic stops by those agencies, 312 speed citations, 904 speed warnings, 151 seat belt violations, 106 seat belt warnings, 86 distracted driving violations and 21 arrests for driving while intoxicated as of Jan. 6.

"Working through collaboration, we were able to—just through daily efforts—reverse that trend," Dwyer said. "The efforts are paying off, and we couldn't do it without your support, so thank you for that."

Crashes decreased by 24 percent from last year; fatalities remained steady while they increased statewide; and total crashes decreased 16 percent, and injury crashes decreased 7 percent, from the three-year average, according to the report about the Highway 210 Corridor Project.

"With the construction projects slated for Highway 210, we felt that maybe we should shift our efforts to a different corridor ... onto the Highway 371 corridor, and that's simply the amount of traffic that brings people to our area," Dwyer said.

Highway 371 Corridor Project year-to-date statistics include 449 traffic stops, 128 speed citations, 171 speed warnings, 31 seat belt citations, 18 seat belt warnings, 17 distracted driving violations and one arrest for driving while intoxicated in Cass and Crow Wing counties.

"An integral part of it is the visibility, no matter what that enforcement action is taken, whether it's a citation or a warning or a conversation on the side of the road," Dwyer said. "That has an incremental effect because people go to their places of work, they go to school, and they talk about what occurred during their travels there, so we're of the belief that highway traffic stops count."

Toward Zero Deaths

The East Central Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths region consists of Benton, Cass, Crow Wing, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Sherburne, Stearns, Todd, Wadena and Wright counties.

"Crow Wing County is one of the longest-standing Toward Zero Deaths groups. ... And the reason for that long-standing relationship, (which) has worked out so well, is the support of the entities within this county," Nixon said. "Crow Wing County has invested in its infrastructure through the highway safety improvement plan. I visit with (County Engineer) Tim Bray ... and everytime he rises to the opportunity to come up with some solution."

The East Central Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths seat belt compliance rate was 84.7 percent in April 2014, making it a regional priority to increase seat belt usage, according to officials.

"Today, I'm happy to report we continue to be less than where we were in 2003. We've had a 42 percent reduction in fatalities statewide. ... Today, we're at 67 fatalities this year as opposed to 53 last year, and 14 of those this year have involved pedestrians."

The statewide average seat belt use rate was 92 percent in 2017 while the regional rate was about 86 percent in April 2017; the last survey finding of about 84 percent was in April 2016, according to East Central Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths statistics.

"Nearly half of the fatalities annually are not wearing (seat) belts, so we hope to change that, but alcohol, distraction and speed are other contributing factors that we spend a lot of time visiting about," Nixon said. "What happened in 2003 was we were seeing that the trend in fatalities was continuing to climb—about 650 some fatalities per year on our roads ... healthy folks that shouldn't be dying in a way that we consider preventable."

One of the goals of the East Central Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths is to decrease traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries in the region from the past five-year average from 2013-2017 of 72 fatalities and 212 serious injuries.

"The sheriff's office has been at the table, too," Nixon said of the more than 90 extra hours last year of enforcement along 1,500 miles for motorists' safety and those visiting the county.

"The Crow Wing County Safety Coalition has been involved in the extra (law) enforcement efforts and education that comes along with that, whether it's an event in schools or we're telling those teens, 'We don't want to see you in a crash.'"

Through September, motorists will face increased driving while intoxicated enforcement patrols in 13 counties that accounted for 42 percent of the state's drunk driving deaths and 56 percent of the state's alcohol-related serious injuries during 2012—16.

"We're also now watching a little closer ATVs. We've noticed that the ATV fatality trends continue to climb. Bicycles are being outpaced by ATVs with many counties and townships changing their use on roadways, so we're tracking that," Nixon said.

Commissioner Koering

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering said at the presentation's end about Toward Zero Deaths that he's glad he once got pulled over for a traffic violation.

Koering revealed at the board meeting his unwitting participation in spreading public awareness about Toward Zero Deaths.

"I just want to say I'm really happy to be instrumental in being part of this project," Koering said to laughter. "I think I was busy singing a Clint Black song, and I crossed over the fog line and so I got pulled over. The red lights were flashing for 15 minutes for my pullover, so glad to help."

Frank Lee

Voted most likely in high school ... "not to be voted most likely for anything," my irreverent humor (and blatant disregard for the Oxford comma) is only surpassed by a flair for producing online videos to accompany unbiased articles about Crow Wing County about, say, how your taxes are being spent, by your elected officials, on issues or topics that matter to YOU.

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