MnDOT hopeful traffic fatalities continue downward trend
A spike in traffic deaths at the start of the pandemic may be winding down, but it's too early to tell.
ROCHESTER — Following an almost two-decade-long decrease in traffic fatalities, Minnesota saw a spike in deaths on its roadways following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
While it's still too early to tell for sure, those deaths may be on the downturn, according to Mark Wagner, assistant state traffic safety engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Wagner, who is speaking at the Southeast Minnesota’s Toward Zero Deaths workshop on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Rochester's International Event Center, said those deaths are concerning and his team, along with MnDOT, are working to make roads safer.
"It's really sad to see the loss of life and the life-changing injuries that increased during the pandemic," Wagner said. "But at the same time, looking back 20 years when Toward Zero Deaths started, that was a hard time too, and we found a way to make it work."
Minnesota has seen a 33% decrease in traffic-related deaths since Toward Zero Deaths began in 2003 as a state traffic safety program that works to lessen roadway fatalities and serious injuries.
There were 394 deaths on Minnesota roads in 2020 compared with 364 in 2019. Deaths continued to increase in 2021, with the state reporting 488 fatalities.
Minnesotans saw a slight reprieve from traffic-related deaths in 2022, clocking in at 446 fatalities.
And the 2023 numbers are looking better than last year, according to Wagner.
"I don't know that this is a new normal that we can expect but I think it's too early to tell," Wagner said. "The evidence so far is pretty good that we're returning to the baseline we saw pre-pandemic, but I wouldn't make any definitive statements at this point."
Olmsted County has bucked the statewide and national trend of pandemic roadway fatalities, with the county reporting 16 deaths in 2019, 13 in 2020, and 6 in 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Twin Cities metro area usually has the most fatalities in the state with the southeast region being one of the safer areas for motorists, according to Wagner.
There are several theories about why Minnesota saw an increase in deaths on its roadways, including enforcement issues and more free time for motorists to speed on less crowded roadways, Wagner said.
Whatever the cause, the state has seen what's makes roads safer and that includes more round-a-bouts, rumble strips, wider pavement markings and J-turns that force drivers to take a right on two-lane highways before being able to pull a U-turn 600 or so feet down the road in order to turn left.
Funding for traffic safety improvements is adequate, Wagner said, and the state receives federal funding to help with roadway improvements.
"We're still in the stage where we can get a lot of good safety treatments for not as much money," Wagner said. "But things like roundabouts and J-turns are getting more expensive."
The Toward Zero Deaths workshop will bring together several traffic safety partners to determine best practices for reducing deaths and injuries on Minnesota roadways which will include a discussion about cannabis DWIs with the Minnesota State Patrol.