Pedestrian deaths in Minnesota stayed steady the past few years even as national rates rose. But the first few months of 2019 have proved to be dangerous here, and state officials are working to understand what's happening.
"Where we're at right now, we've had 10 pedestrian fatalities, and at this time last year we were at five," said Mike Hanson, director of the state's Office of Traffic Safety.
It's too early to determine exact causes for these deaths — Hanson said some of the crashes may still be under investigation. But he offered some educated observations, including that hearty Minnesotans are willing to exercise and be out of their homes during the winter even as it gets dark.
He also suggested higher snowbanks and restricted access to sidewalks due to snow may be contributing to the increase, along with distracted driving and walking.
"If we look at 2017 data, 41 percent of these crashes were attributed to pedestrian error, while 59 percent were caused by driver error," Hanson said.
When a crash was determined to be a pedestrian error, the main cause documented was due to dashing into a roadway. When it's a driver error, the primary factor was failing to yield the right of way.
Minnesota had been bucking the national trend of increased pedestrian fatalities. While the number of pedestrian fatal crashes has increased by 35 percent in the past decade, Minnesota has stayed close to its average of about 39 fatal pedestrian crashes a year within the same time frame.
While pedestrian fatalities have remained within an average of just under 40 a year, injuries and crashes have increased in the last three years. Crashes, injuries and fatalities all saw an increase in 2016, but Hanson said the data suggests the high deaths in that year is more of an outlier than part of a trend.
The goal, he added, isn't to only reduce deaths but crashes overall. "What we're trying to prevent is a funeral and a family going through a horrible event."
The Governors Highway Safety Association estimates 6,227 pedestrians were killed last year nationwide. If that estimate holds, it'll be the highest rate of pedestrian deaths since 1990.
It would also be an increase of 4 percent from 2017 when 5,977 people on foot lost their lives to a motor vehicle crash. Pedestrian crashes have been trending up since 2009.
Nationwide, 75 percent of pedestrian crashes occur after dark, according to the governors' group.
How to prevent pedestrian crashes
Pedestrians should cross at crosswalks when possible, look both ways at least twice, have strong situational awareness and avoid distractions while walking along the road or across, he said. If walking in the dark, wear bright or reflective clothing.
Drivers should avoid any distracted driving, keep an eye on speed and treat every corner like a crosswalk, even if it's not an official crosswalk, he added.
Legally, drivers must always yield to pedestrians.
"It's a two-way street," he said. "Pedestrians and drivers both need to look out for each other. Pedestrians need to be seen, and drivers need to see."