Fewer people killed this year on Minn. highwaysby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — As summer travel season comes to a close, we note one positive trend on Minnesota's roadways -- fewer people are dying from motor vehicle crashes.
In addition, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety is reporting the number of deaths related to drunk driving dropped 21 percent in 2010 from five years ago.
Years of statistics show Minnesota's roadways are getting safer. Minnesota is on pace for fewer traffic deaths than last year; 212 people have died on the state's roads this year, compared to 262 last year at this time.
About a third of all motor vehicle deaths are due to drunk driving, but the Minnesota Department of Public Safety says those numbers are down too. The state broke a record last year for the fewest number of impaired-driving deaths at 131.
The state hasn't experienced such low numbers since World War II, when there were far fewer cars and trucks on the roads.
Nathan Bowie of the Public Safety Department says those statistics reflect a positive trend in the last few years. He says there are many reasons why fatal crashes are declining: stronger sanctions for repeat drunk drivers; education campaigns; and increased DWI police enforcement.
"The goal is to prevent the behavior in the first place, so we conduct enforcement campaigns and we promote them as well so people are aware that they're happening," said Bowie. "Our goal is not to go out there and arrest drunk drivers, it's to prevent the behavior in the first place -- to limit these preventable deaths."
Minnesota's numbers dovetail with national statistics showing a decline in traffic fatalities since reaching a high point in the early 1970s.
A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report issued in 2008 said safety standards such as vehicle crashworthiness regulations and passenger restraints such as seatbelts, airbags and child seats all contributed to fewer lives lost on the nation's roads.
Authorities in Minnesota say the drop in fatalities in the last couple of years is also due in part to a program between the Departments of Public Safety, Health, and Transportation called Toward Zero Deaths.
Through this partnership, MnDOT has been changing how roads are designed to cut back on crashes. Kevin Gutknecht of the Minnesota Department of Transportation says an example is introducing drivers to roundabouts -- intersections where traffic moves in one direction around a central island.
"Vehicles don't have to necessarily stop at intersections. They can just kind of flow through it," he said. "It keeps the traffic flowing. It prevents cars from being stopped and stacking up, which causes rear-end crashes."
Gutknecht says MnDOT is also installing cable barriers on many of the interstates -- three-stranded cable fences that run down the middle of roads to stop vehicles from crossing into oncoming traffic.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration report from 2008 also notes that lower fatalities tend to coincide with recessions in the U.S. economy, but it didn't provide a concrete reason as to why.
- All Things Considered, 09/05/2011, 5:20 p.m.