Rising traffic fatalities 'erasing 15 years of progress in 18 months'

Traffic moves along Interstate 35W
Traffic moves along Interstate 35W through south Minneapolis as seen from the 42nd Street bridge. Mike Hanson of Minnesota's Office of Traffic Safety said speed is one of the main reasons why traffic deaths have risen.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Traffic fatalities reached a 15-year high last year, even while the number of reported crashes and the volume of cars on the road decreased.

Mike Hanson, the director of Minnesota’s Office of Traffic Safety, spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann about what can be done to turn things around this year and if there’s a glimmer of hope ahead.

Hear the full conversation by using the audio player above or reading the transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell us more about the numbers in 2021.

Well, the long and short of it is we're on the wrong trajectory: 501 deaths, preliminarily, in 2021. That's a number we haven't seen since the mid-2000s.

We're also seeing more severe crashes. I understand the number of crashes is actually down a bit but there's greater severity?

You're exactly correct. The number of reported crashes is down from what we were seeing prior to 2020. When the number of crashes go down [and] when vehicle miles traveled go down, we expected that fatality numbers would go down, as well.

It took us about two or three weeks to realize that we were seeing something really historically unprecedented: that as the crash numbers went down — and went down precipitously — our fatality numbers went up significantly.

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And what's behind that?

Well, quite simply speed. That is the No. 1 contributing factor to the rise in severity.

How much of this can be attributed to the pandemic or to fewer cars on the road making it easier to speed? Is it that simple or is it more complicated?

I think it's more complicated, but I think as the traffic volumes decreased, there was more lane space to use and to abuse — and people were taking out some of their internal frustrations out on the road. Those bad habits have carried forward even into 2022, although thankfully, to a lesser extent than we saw throughout 2021.

I want to talk about the program, Toward Zero Deaths. Now, since that program has been in place, what would you say is getting in the way of the numbers actually going down and in the right direction?

The TZD program brings together engineering, enforcement, education and emergency medical services to solve tough traffic safety issues — and we did that really well. Between 2003 and 2014, we reduced our fatality numbers by 45 percent. Minnesota quickly became a national model for how we were approaching our traffic safety issues. So what we're looking at is the next generation of TZD. We've made some really good strides up until 2020. But the numbers that we're talking about, we're almost erasing 15 years of progress in 18 months.

[There is] a lot of [federal] infrastructure money out there, some of it coming to Minnesota. How much of that should be earmarked for this and how much of a difference could that make? There's over a trillion dollars here.

There is, and the good news with the infrastructure act that was passed is, not only is there infrastructure money there, but there is a substantial increase in the safety money that is also available. Our office will definitely benefit from that.

When you look at this year, so far are we on track for a better or worse year?

I'll say this with a big asterisk: I am somewhat optimistic in that, as of today, we are 21 fatalities behind where we were at this time last year. My research team tells me we can't quite call it a trend yet, but that is going in the right direction.