With two months still left in 2021, Minnesota has reported 415 traffic fatalities as of Nov. 4. In contrast, the exact count for all of 2020 was 394.
According to preliminary data from the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, speeding, distracted driving, drunken driving, and unbelted driving account for more than 65% of road fatalities in the state.
During a recent conversation with Eden Prairie Local News, Mike Hanson, director of the Office of Public Safety, wonders what the end of the year will bring.
He is worried.
“When you start to project that kind of numbers, I just don’t know what to think,” Hanson said. “Add another 25% … that takes us to that 500 mark.”
Hanson offered another data point in history.
“We’ve given up (a lot of ground) since 2017 when the number was 344,” he said. “That was the lowest we had seen since 1944.”
Based on the data and its timing, Hanson said COVID-19 hit Minnesota and the rest of the country hard in February and March 2020. “That was when we started to significantly reverse the downward trend in fatal and serious crashes,” he said.
“Yes, it was as if Mr. COVID brought along his evil brother, the very bad driver, with him,” Hanson added. “Those two things in combination really triggered something in a lot of people that have been very hard to turn off. I think people were frustrated, stuck at home, and they took it out on the road.”
He continued: “And then, you throw in the whole political divisiveness. We really have a difficult situation that we must figure out, how to deal with.”
In an EPLN article in September, Col. Matt Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, pointed to elevated levels of speeding infractions in the past two years, especially since COVID.
Langer saw multiple bad driver behaviors coinciding. He said drunken driving makes speeding, not using a seatbelt, and distracted driving much worse.
A study published by the Star Tribune on Oct. 30 reported a 10% increase in alcohol sales for the state, which could have trickled down into the driving numbers.
EPLN asked Hanson how the Office of Traffic Safety is addressing the challenges listed by Langer? Hanson empathizes with Col. Langer about the State Patrol being pulled in many directions right now.
“They don’t have the resources to answer their calls,” Hanson said. “The officers they do have, have been working so hard that there’s just not a lot of extra energy to do some of the things that need to be done on the roads.”
Pointing to a serious situation facing the State Patrol, Hanson said, “nobody wants to get into enforcement anymore.”
“We’re setting ourselves up for a very difficult next few years, and law enforcement can’t solve this problem because it’s so widespread,” he said.
He stressed the Office of Public Safety is “absolutely engaged with our traffic law enforcement partners, and we support them to the best of our ability. So even with limited resources, they can still be out there, keeping our world safe.”
Hanson was candid in describing his office’s struggles.
“There are only so many, so many solutions I can put on the table,” he said. “Problems we’re facing now.”
He advises that “everybody needs to take two seconds and do a reality (check) … before you turn that car on and start your trip.”
All drivers, he said, “must remember that our transportation system is designed for all of us to follow a certain set of rules and to have a modicum of courtesy for the other drivers out there.”
He described it as a cooperative system that “does not work when people treat it as their own private playground.”
Hanson noted in his safety data that irresponsible drivers have a small footprint.
“It’s not everybody, it’s not even the majority, but it is enough (for) causing mayhem, carnage and completely preventable tragedy on our roads,” he said.
Though small, he likened this group to “one bad fish spoils the whole pond.”
He added: “It’s not just young people either; it’s people my age. I see them all the time.”
In addition to bad drivers, Hanson finds divisiveness within society is a serious spoiler.
“Everything is political,” he said. “People don’t like to be told what to do, whether it’s wearing a mask, getting a COVID shot, or obeying the speed limit, or putting on the seatbelt.”
He scoffed at the oft-repeated argument he hears, “I live in a free country. You don’t have any right to stop me.”
He retorted with strong disagreement. “I have a right to stop you … your behavior puts me, my family, and everybody else on the road in danger,” he said. “That is nothing but selfish.”
Hanson said some things are allowed, and some things are not. People cannot treat the public transportation system as their private entertainment venue.
“It just doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Hanson added that people shouldn’t equate selfish driving to freedom.
“Driving is not a right; it is a privilege incumbent upon agreement to follow the rules,” he said. “Violate the rules, and that privilege goes away.”
Hanson related a recent conversation with a young woman who called him to talk about traffic safety. She is afraid to drive home in the afternoon rush hour because of what she sees every day.
“A few people are driving the majority of the people crazy,” he said.
Hanson sees working to fix the problem as a call to action for his team and the community they serve.
“We are re-emphasizing our community engagement in our outreach and education efforts,” he said. “We just can’t treat enforcement as the only tool in our toolbox. We know it is one of the most effective tools, but the scope and scale of the challenges we’re facing demand that we double down on other efforts.”
Editor’s note: Vijay Dixit is the chairman of Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation, a 501-c-3 nonprofit advocating distraction-free driving. He is also a board member of Eden Prairie Local News and a member of the EPLN Development Committee and journalism team.