DULUTH, Minn. — The headline this week was easy to dismiss. Already in 2021, there have been “303 Traffic Fatalities across the State,” the Minnesota Department of Public Safety announced.
Up from last year? Yeah, that makes sense. Far fewer of us were out traveling and driving around last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. More vehicles on the roads this year equals more accidents and more fatalities: That’s just simple logic.
But read closer: The 300th traffic death in Minnesota this year came on Aug. 28, which is the soonest the state has reached the grim milestone in nearly a decade and a half, since 2007, long before the coronavirus was redefining normalcy. So, not just up from last year. Which is reason for alarm. And for introspection to determine why tragic wrecks are happening more frequently now and what can be done to prevent more.
“While one fatality on Minnesota roads is one too many, Minnesotans have been making progress over the years in changing their driving behaviors for the better. But recently, motorists are falling into bad habits, ignoring the law, and it’s costing us lives,” Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota DPS’s Office of Traffic Safety, said in a statement to the media Monday, including to the News Tribune Opinion page.
“This many preventable deaths on Minnesota roads before Labor Day is completely unacceptable,” Hanson further stated. “It’s not a homework assignment; you don’t get a do-over. We all need to drive smart to keep our family, friends and neighbors alive.”
In seeming defiance of logic, the pandemic actually is partly to blame for the rise in deadly collisions. Yes, there were fewer vehicles on the road last year, but because of that some motorists became emboldened to drive faster; and now, with that habit formed, they’re still zooming beyond speed limits. Four in 10 traffic fatalities this year have been due to excessive speed, reported the Department of Public Safety. This year’s 103 speed-related deaths are up from just 78 at this same time last year.
More Minnesota motorists are dying this year, too, because they aren’t wearing seat belts. Seriously, seat belts. Apparently we didn’t all get accustomed to that simple safety measure, despite its being drilled into us since the 1970s. So far this year, 64 unbelted motorists died in crashes, accounting for 21% of 2021’s traffic fatalities. That’s up from 60 at this time last year, which accounted for 24% of the fatalities then.
The numbers of those unbuckled became so troubling this summer that law enforcement coordinated two weeks of concentrated seat-belt patrols. No one should need to be pulled over and ticketed to be reminded how common-sense basic buckling up is in order to avoid a tragedy. Yet that’s precisely what was deemed necessary.
Also this summer, Minnesota marked the two-year anniversary of its hands-free cell-phone law — but not with a celebration for all the lives saved because motorists are no longer holding their phones while driving; instead the occasion was cause for a warning from Public Safety officials that far too many of us were slipping back into old and dangerous habits like texting and driving or like driving with cell phones held to our ears.
"It's safe to say the novelty (of Minnesota's hands-free driving law) has worn off, and people could be getting complacent," the Department of Public Safety stated this month.
In other troubling trends this year, Minnesota’s first 303 traffic fatalities included 64 motorcyclists compared with 46 at the same time last year and 45 pedestrians compared with 26 a year ago. Clearly , too many Minnesota motorists are paying less attention while driving. It’s inexcusable.
We need to do better. By stowing our phones while driving. By slowing down and obeying speed limits. Dear goodness, by something as simple as using seat belts.
If such reminders aren’t enough to prevent hundreds of entirely preventable deaths, there’s also this: another round of concentrated patrols, through Monday, with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety focusing this time on excessive speed.
Don’t wait to get pulled over, though, to take simple precautions to protect your fellow Minnesotans. COVID-19’s new norms can’t include regressing into dangerous driving habits. Let’s not let them.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.