State Patrol captain says fatal crashes can be prevented
Capt. Dick Wittenberg of the Minnesota State Patrol's northwest district is frustrated.
"I experience a high-degree of frustration in what I see (as) people ignoring a huge problem," said Wittenberg, commander of District 3200 of the State Patrol, Friday in Bemidji.
He said fatal crashes can be prevented as he presented "Crashes -- The True Story" to 60 representatives of engineering, enforcement, education and emergency medical service from throughout the region at the first workshop of the Northwest Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Coalition.
Wittenberg said District 3200, headquartered in Thief River Falls, responded to 20 fatal crashes last year, more than he has seen in one year in the district since becoming the district's commander in 1997. He said the district, which covers the state's 10 most northwestern counties from Beltrami to Kittson, typically responds to 12 -- maybe 15 at the most -- fatal crashes each year.
"We'd like to do what we can to reduce them," Wittenberg said.
Many of the fatal crashes last year in the district could have had less impact or been prevented altogether, he said.
As he reviewed each of the 20 fatal crashes, Wittenberg said the recurring theme was drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs and not wearing seat belts.
One such crash last spring involved an intoxicated man who was driving without wearing a seat belt. He was crushed by his own pickup in a rollover in Kittson County.
"Belts would have definitely saved him," Wittenberg said. "The importance of (a seat belt) is it keeps you in the vehicle."
He said staying in a vehicle at the time of a crash gives the occupants the maximum protection that the vehicle offers. The metal of a car protecting its occupants is like the shell of an egg protecting its yoke, he said. By staying inside a vehicle, the occupants have an 80 percent better chance of surviving a crash, he said.
Wittenberg said driver inattention was also a major factor among the fatal crashes last year in the district. He said inattentiveness can stem from distractions ranging from cell phones to eating to radios to children in the backseat.
"Driving's a full-time job," Wittenberg said. "People just tend to forget that."
One of the fatal crashes last year killed a woman who ran a stop sign on a sunny, dry afternoon.
"What we have here is an inattentive driver -- maybe just one moment of inattention," Wittenberg said. "That's all it takes."
He added that driving through stop signs is a bad habit.
"If you get into this habit, you have to get out of it," Wittenberg said.
Two of the fatal crashes last year in the district were triggered by medical conditions of the drivers involved.
Another fatal crash involved a man who fell asleep at the wheel. The fatigued driver had left work after a 12-hour night shift at a sugar beet plant in Drayton, N.D., when he fell asleep. He crashed the vehicle, which then started on fire.
Of the 20 fatal crashes last year in the district, weather conditions played a role in only two, Wittenberg said. Even so, he noted, both drivers at cause in these two crashes were intoxicated.
Toward Zero Deaths
Toward Zero Death is a Minnesota interagency partnership led by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, in cooperation with the State Patrol, Federal Highway Administration, county engineers and the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Its mission is "to move Minnesota toward zero deaths on our roads, using education, enforcement, engineering and emergency services."
In the past decade, an average of about 600 people have died on Minnesota roadways each year, Wittenberg said. He noted that the number of these deaths has been decreasing in the last few years.