Traffic deaths up in Minnesotaby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Seat belt use in Minnesota continues to rise, however, new numbers released from the state Office of Traffic Safety today show about 15 percent of drivers on the road refuse or forget to buckle up. And fatality totals for 2007 show they pay a very high price.
St. Paul, Minn. — In 2007, 510 people were killed on state roads, up slightly from the year before.
A handful of people died operating farm equipment, snowmobiles, ATV's or bicycles on roads. Thirty-three pedestrians were killed on roadways. Sixty-one motorcycle riders were crash victims.
The largest number of deaths last year on Minnesota roads, 399, were car and truck drivers or their passengers. Twelve died during the I-35W bridge collapse.
Nearly half of the vehicle drivers killed on Minnesota roadways weren't belted in, according to Office of Traffic Safety director Cheri Marti.
"Forty-nine percent of those 399 vehicle occupants killed were not wearing their seat belts," she says.
Again last year as in the past most of the vehicle fatalities were on outstate, not Twin Cities roadways. More than 67 percent occurred in rural areas, Marti says.
"That seat belt use rate really drops in those rural communities contributing to the overall fatality rate," she says.
For years, seat belt advocates have argued Minnesota should follow the lead of about half the other states in the country and adopt a primary seat belt law. The law would require drivers and passengers be belted, and if they're not they can be stopped and cited.
The proposal has been repeatedly turned back at the Legislature by a coalition of rural and inner city lawmakers worried stronger seat belt laws infringe on personal freedom or might lead to law enforcement abuses like racial profiling.
For the most part in Minnesota police can only cite drivers for not wearing a seat belt if they're stopped for speeding, drinking or some other primary offense.
St. Cloud resident Dan Dillman travels every weekday to his job in Elk River and he's belted in when he's on the road, he says. But while driving around town he doesn't always attach the harness. Wearing a seatbelt should be a personal choice, Dillman says.
"There's no way you can legislate everybody into being safe. If somebody doesn't want to do it they're not going to do it. If they pay the fines, they pay the fines," he says.
State officials estimate more than 85 percent of Minnesota drivers buckle up. The rate in some other states is more than 90 percent.
Seat belt use is highest among older, urban drivers especially women. It's lowest among younger drivers and African Americans.
Surveys by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show a fair number of people who don't use seat belts say they forget to attach them, says senior researcher Anne McCartt.
Auto makers are putting more insistent buzzers and other devices in vehicles to remind drivers, and she says the gizmos tend to increase seat belt use four to five percent.
That may not sound like much but the effect adds up when spread across 10's of millions of U.S. drivers.
Many states where primary seat belt laws have been adopted have put the personal freedom argument aside, McCartt says.
"Certainly (when) someone who is injured in a crash, some of the medical costs and other societal costs are born not by the individual but by society as a whole," she says.
The price tag in Minnesota for traffic deaths and injuries is put at more than $1.6 billion last year - that includes lost wages, productivity, medical and emergency expenses and other costs.
The Minnesota traffic safety report released today and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report released last week contain good news and bad news.
Although the state traffic fatality total last year is up slightly, the national total - 41,059 killed on U.S. roadways - is at its lowest level in 13 years.
Injuries are down as well.
And so far this year there's been a sharp drop in road deaths both nationally and in Minnesota, a trend some researchers attribute to people driving less because of high gasoline costs.
The bad news is motorcycle deaths and injuries are up sharply both nationally and in Minnesota, at their highest levels, in fact, since record keeping began in l975.
- All Things Considered, 08/26/2008, 4:49 p.m.