Traffic deaths in Minnesota rose in 2012 for the first time in five years. Public safety officials say they are concerned about the uptick after years of declining death rates.
A particular worry is the greater number of fatalities among motorcyclists. Safety experts are trying to reverse that trend.
In 2012, mild weather invited motorcycle riders out on the roads a month or more earlier than usual. But that lovely weather may have helped boost the death toll among motorcyclists. Fifty-five cyclists died in crashes in 2012, compared to 42 in 2011.
More than half of those crashes involved the cyclist alone, according to Donna Berger, who directs Minnesota's Office of Traffic Safety.
"They run off the road, they hit gravel, they hit loose dirt, and sometimes they actually have a lot of crashes with deer, "Berger said.
All traffic deaths are preventable, Berger said.
According to the Department of Public Safety's 2011 figures, in 40 percent of crashes involving another vehicle, the car driver failed to yield the right of way to the cyclist.
Dusty Rhodes said lack of awareness is a big problem. Rhodes heads the motorcycle safety education program at the St. Paul Harley-Davidson dealership.
"One of the first things after an accident, the driver of the automobile says, 'I didn't see the motorcycle.' Some motorcyclists cause accidents themselves by being reckless, not being aware," Rhodes said. "We always tell them, don't mess with anyone with more wheels than you have."
In the motorcycle safety class, conducted near the dealership just off Interstate 94, a dozen riders practice the basics of riding, maneuvering in tight spaces, how to stop quickly and safely. Instructor Eddie Carroll tells students when they stop their motorcycle to immediately put the bike in first gear.
"You always want to go to first gear because guess what, when you stop in traffic, something bad has happened, now I've got to move the bike and I've got to move it fast. In first gear you can always go," Carroll said.
Instructors urge more experienced riders to take advanced classes to improve their skills.
Motorcycling is increasingly popular with people older than 40. The number of registered motorcycles in Minnesota is at or near its highest level in history, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Rhodes said drivers of all vehicles are not paying attention.
"I've seen guys on motorcycles talking on their cell phone. I just can't quite figure out how that works when you're trying to use both hands and both feet," Rhodes said.
Alcohol use and riding without helmets also played roles in fatal crashes. In 2011, 28 percent of motorcyclists killed tested positive for alcohol, and more than half of them were not wearing helmets.