Pedal to the metal: Drivers' higher speeds concern officials
Excessive speed and failure to wear seatbelts have killed more people on Minnesota roads through the first 11 weeks of the year, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
As of Thursday, there were 66 traffic deaths, up 47 percent from the same period last year when there were 45 at this time of year.
"This year we've seen a spike in vehicle deaths to start 2012," said DPS spokesman Nathan Bowie. "While we don't have official factors, it's pretty clear the roads are in better shape because of the weak winter and motorists are traveling at faster speeds. We've also seen a trend of poor belt use. That combination has led to more serious crashes."
Nationwide, about a third of fatalities remain speed-related, despite headway made in other areas of highway safety, such as drunken driving and seatbelt use, according to a recent report by the national Governors Highway Safety Association.
The report said 78 percent of state highway safety agencies surveyed said public indifference was the biggest obstacle to preventing excessive speeding.
Minnesota breaks its speeding stats down into a three-year period, the last one occurring from 2008 to 2010.
During that time, unsafe speeds contributed to 266 fatal crashes in which 296 people died. Of those fatalities, 65 percent occurred in rural areas with populations of less than 5,000.
In northwest Minnesota, speed-related crashes killed nine in the three-year period, including five in Polk County and two in Mahnomen County. Beltrami County was not included in the tally.
However, the state Office of Traffic Safety has numerous traffic statistics on its website.
A preliminary fact sheet shows there were 471 crashes resulting in five deaths and 13 serious injuries last year in Beltrami County.
A report showing statistics for 2008-2010 shows there were 12 Beltrami County traffic deaths during the three-year span. None of the deaths were directly attributed to speed.
The statistics are sobering for the neighboring counties of Cass and Hubbard, too. Cass County reported 19 total traffic deaths, including three due to speed, and seven speed-related severe injuries from 2008-2010. In the same span, Hubbard County had 12 traffic deaths, three which were speed-related, and two severe injuries due to speed.
In Clearwater County, there were two traffic deaths in the three-year span. Neither death was speed-related. There was one severe injury attributed to speed.
To the west, in North Dakota, fatal accidents involving excessive speed took a dip in 2010, the most recent year statistics are available.
As recently as 2007, 43 percent of those accidents fit into that category. In 2010, only 27.2 percent of fatalities involved unsafe speeds.
The highway fatality rate, which is based on fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, continues to be higher in North Dakota than the national average.
State Highway Patrol Lt. Jody Skogen said North Dakota changed its ticket fee schedule in the past five years, but higher tickets aren't the key to decreased speed.
"The primary mission is to increase responsible behavior for the driver," he said. "At the time you're issuing a ticket, that hasn't happened. The deterrent of a citation definitely plays a role, but education is huge."
Skogen said people who speed generally only think of the cost of the ticket if they're pulled over, not of the potential increased risk for an accident.
"I think they weigh the consequences," he said. "When they do that they're unaware of the dangers those increased speeds. That's something we try to educate the public on."
North Dakota fatalities are bound to increase as the state sees more traffic in the Oil Patch, according to Skogen.
The state has seen an increase in vehicle-miles traveled on its highways from 7.4 billion in 2005 to 9.1 billion in 2011, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation. The number of licensed drivers has continued a steady incline, up nearly seven percent in the last 10 years despite a decrease in licensed vehicles.
"When we have so much more traffic increasing in the state, while it's unfortunate, it's predictable the crashes are going up," Skogen said. "North Dakota is moving toward a new norm. It's going to be hard to compare numbers from the first six months of this year to the first six months of 2011."
But in 2010, it was the eastern and central part of the state that saw more speed-related fatalities. Benson County and Cass County had the highest numbers with three each. Grand Forks County had two.
Bowie said recognizing everyone else on the road and patience are keys to safe driving.
"We stress to people, you can't put your schedule ahead of everyone else's safety," he said. "Drive at safe speed and be patient. We all have to share the roads together."
Last week in the Pioneer, a column by Trish Grimsley, a Beltrami County bailiff and Safe Neighborhood Coalition coordinator, wrote a column about the county's Toward Zero Deaths mission for roadways.
The idea is to create a culture in which "traffic fatalities and serious injuries are no longer acceptable," she wrote.
A contingent of concerned citizens - including health and human services, county engineers, emergency medical services, law enforcement and others - are focused on a four-pronged approach in reducing deaths and serious injuries.
The mission includes education, enforcement of laws, engineering improvements and emergency medical and trauma services.
"Alone, one of the four Es cannot effect a significant change in traffic safety," Grimsley wrote. "It takes the combined effort of all four disciplines to really make the difference on our roads."
And while officials and emergency responders aim to reduce crashes, Grimsley said everyone plays a role in keeping roadways safe.
"It takes everyone doing their part, and making our roads safe, to achieve our goal of zero deaths," she said.
Steve Wagner, editor for The Pioneer, contributed to this article.