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MN traffic deaths down from last year, still higher than pre-pandemic

The Office of Traffic Safety and State Patrol peg increased speeding that hasn't dropped since the pandemic began as a top factor.

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Despite crashes like the one Monday night on Highway 169 in Plymouth, and earlier in the day on Interstate 94 in Rogers — each taking the life of one person — 2022 has seen fewer deadly crashes year-to-date than in 2021.

According to the Minnesota State Patrol, there have been 267 people killed on Minnesota roads so far this year, compared to 295 at this time last year.

But that comes with a caveat because the numbers are still way higher than in 2019, the year before COVID-19 struck.

So, what changed during the pandemic?

"We did see a decrease in the volume of traffic, but we also saw an increase in the speeds in which drivers are going," said Lt. Gordon Shank with State Patrol. 

Shank said people noticeably started driving faster when there were fewer cars on the road during the pandemic. And unfortunately, as the cars returned, the speeding did not significantly reduce.

"I think anywhere across the state right now, if you ask troopers, they're seeing the same thing. We're seeing drivers that are going over 100 miles per hour. We're seeing people that have no excuse that are not planning a sober ride. We're seeing drivers without seatbelts on and we're seeing drivers using their cell phones in a way that's not hands-free," Shank said.

"I guess the best way I'd sum it up is that it's a 'bad news with a little bit of good news' picture," said Mike Hanson, director of the Office of Traffic Safety for the Department of Public Safety. 

They track the contributing factors leading to deadly crashes.

Speed is the top factor, and its involvement in fatal crashes jumped from 44 at this time in 2019 to 71 in 2020, all the way up to 108 in 2021 and down to 76 this year — still way above the pre-pandemic years.

There is some slight good news when it comes to distracted driving.

"We have seen a general downward — a slight downward — trend in the number of distracted driving fatalities in Minnesota since the hands-free law went into effect — I think in 2018." Hanson said.

The number of alcohol-related fatalities are lower than the last six years — 43, compared to 89 last year. 

Enforcement could be playing a role.

"Our traffic stops are up overall as an agency; we're seeing an increase in DWI arrests," Shank said.

There have been about 1000 more impaired driving arrests than this time last year, according to Hanson. But there is an additional interesting tidbit from the Office of Traffic Safety.

"Over half of the impaired arrests are being made for something other than alcohol. So we have some challenges ahead of us when it comes to drug-impaired drivers," Hanson said.

The Department of Public Safety — between State Patrol and the Office of Traffic Safety — has been involved in several campaigns this year in an effort to raise safe driving awareness. But they have a way to go before the data instead shows a "good news with a little bit of bad news" picture.

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