Bemidji, Minn. — Minnesota is on track to see the lowest number of traffic deaths since the 1940s and many credit stronger seat belt laws and crackdowns on impaired driving.
But in the first half of 2010, the state saw a series of tragic crashes that killed two dozen teenagers. Most of those deaths happened on rural highways.
Even though most Minnesotans live in the seven-county metro area, 70 percent of traffic deaths happen on rural two-lane highways like the one in Polk County where three teenagers died on a County Road 6 near Fosston. Sixteen-year-old Michael Hove had just picked up his prom date, 16-year old Emily Setum. They were in a borrowed Chevy Corvette. Reports say Hove was speeding when he crashed into a car driven by 15-year-old Adam Steinmetz, who had just finished farm chores.
"They collided head on," said Paul Stolen, of rural Fosston, who recently pointed to the the crash site. "The Corvette was over the center line and they collided right here."
Stolen, a retired state Department of Natural Resources official, worked on environmental issues with state and county highway engineers building roads. He said rural roads can be dangerous as they often have narrow shoulders, sharp curves and steep ditches that make rollovers more likely.
But Stolen thinks the main problem is speeding.
"People are ignoring the speed limit and the enforcement of it has been ineffectual," he said.
In 2007, two more fatal crashes happened on the same stretch of road in Polk County. Both were one-car accidents. By July of this year, 25 teens had died in traffic accidents across Minnesota, some of them similar to the prom-night crash in Fosston. Most of the accidents happened on rural roads, and preliminary data shows speed was a contributing factor in a third of the crashes.
The other factor in the recent string of rural crashes is that half of the teen victims weren't wearing seat belts.
"Most Minnesotans are buckling up," except many teens, said Cheri Marti director of Minnesota's Office of Traffic Safety. "When they get with their peers -- even though they've been raised from infant seat to car seat to booster seat to seat belt, and they've lived it -- they unbuckle."
It's not just teens taking risks on rural roads. In 2009, 75 percent of the unbelted traffic deaths occurred outside the metro. More than 70 percent of alcohol-related deaths happened on rural roads. And 70 percent of speed-related deaths were on rural roads.
So why are people taking more risks on roads in greater Minnesota? Some say it's because people think they can get away with it. In some cases, the number of law enforcement officers has dwindled.
In northwest Minnesota, for example, there used to be 30 State Troopers covering a 5,000-square-mile district. Commander Dick Wittenberg, said there are now 25 troopers, soon to be 24. He expects the steady drain will continue.
"I don't have enough. Clearly don't have enough," Wittenberg said. "We have a rough time making a difference at the levels we're staffed. And unfortunately, we're not alone. A lot of the rural areas, and even in the metro areas, we're understaffed compared to what we think we should be."
Wittenberg said the latest threat is distracted driving. The Minnesota Safety Council estimates deaths associated with driver distraction jumped 50 percent from 2005 to 2008.
More people -- especially teenagers -- are texting and using mp3 players and cell phones while driving.
That kind of risky behavior is particularly dangerous on rural roads. Transportation officials say many of those roads don't meet modern safety standards for things like shoulder width and ditch slopes.
Lynn Eaton, district engineer for the state Department of Transportation in northwest Minnesota, said upgrading roads is expensive, and with massive budget challenges, federal and state highway funds are shrinking.
Eaton said the cheapest way to reduce traffic deaths may be educating drivers to follow the rules and pay more attention to the road.
"The most dangerous thing you can do every day is get in your vehicle and drive somewhere," Eaton said. "You look at the most frequent way to die, it's in a vehicle. And if you don't take that seriously... you really have no business in a vehicle."
A public campaign to get drivers to keep their eyes on the road kicked off this week in Minnesota. Some lawmakers will push to strengthen traffic laws in the next legislative session.