Last year's traffic deaths lowest in Minn. since 1944by Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio,
Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota tallied 403 traffic deaths in 2009, the lowest number since 1944, state public safety officials announced Monday.
Although the number is still preliminary, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety said it's an 8 percent drop from the previous year and is lower than any year since 1944, when there were 356 deaths.
Besides tallying the total number of traffic deaths, the Department of Public Safety also calculates the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Officials expected that rate to be 0.75 for 2009, which would be the lowest ever for Minnesota.
The rate was 0.79 in 2008, compared to 5.52 in 1966.
The Department of Public Safety said it believes one likely factor in the decline of traffic deaths is the state's new primary seat belt law, which allows law enforcement agencies to stop motorists for not wearing a seat belt even if they are complying with all other traffic laws. The state's seat-belt compliance law is now at a record-high 90 percent.
Officials said other factors that contribute to fewer traffic deaths are the economic downturn (causing motorists to drive less and drive slower), road improvements like cable median barriers, enforcement actions and education.
"There is no one factor but clearly a combination of those four-five factors have contributed to an environment where we're killing less people than we have in the past," state Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion said. "Even though we're pleased with that we can't really rejoice with that. Four hundred people is still one person a day dies and that's still one too many."
The 2009 traffic death total includes 298 motorists, 51 motorcyclists, 36 pedestrians, 9 bicyclists, 3 ATV riders, 3 farm equipment operators, 2 bus passengers and a road maintenance vehicle occupant.
Campion said one way officials will work to improve road safety is by expanding the ignition interlock program, which targets repeat drunken drivers.
"We think the implementation of ignition interlock is a very good public policy and focuses resources directly on the biggest problem that is habitual DWI offenders that are menaces on our highways," Campion said.
Wisconsin had 545 traffic deaths in 2009, which was also the lowest number recorded for Wisconsin since 1944, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation said. The 2009 total, which was preliminary, was a 7 percent reduction from 2008.
Iowa officials also reported that the number of 2009 traffic fatalities was the lowest since World War II.
- Morning Edition, 01/05/2010, 7:25 a.m.
Elizabeth Dunbar is a general assignment reporter for MPR News.