ST. PAUL — Minnesota's year in traffic safety is poised to end on an especially deadly note.

A reported 380 road fatalities and counting have been recorded in the state so far this year, according to the Minnesota Toward Zero Death initiative. Drivers traveling at excessive speeds are believed to have contributed to that number.

"There are almost 400 empty chairs at Minnesota tables this holiday season simply because of poor choices that drivers have been making out there. And it’s very disheartening to see that," Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety Director Mike Hanson said.

Though 2020 is not quite over, Minnesota has already outpaced and exceeded the number of road fatalities recorded in 2019. At mid-December last year, only 348 had been recorded. And preliminary figures put the total number of road fatalities recorded in 2019 at 364.

Road fatalities increased this year even though Minnesotans drove less frequently and for shorter distances at a time because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Hanson. But more and more, Hanson said, drivers seem to be traveling at "extreme" and unsafe speeds which, coupled with an occasional lapse in seatbelt wearing, can prove fatal.

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"I'm talking about 25, 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 miles an hour over the speed limit," he said.

"It used to be a once or twice a year event where you would stop somebody for driving over 100 miles an hour, and it was a deal," Hanson continued. "You talked about it. We're having multiple violations within a single shift with officers right now."

For Lisa Kons, traffic safety program manager at the not-for-profit Minnesota Safety Council, the numbers are startling. Given the dip in traffic and travel, she said in an interview, they ought to be trending down.

For that to happen will depend as much on individuals as it does law enforcement and safety advocates, she said.

"We aren’t going to enforce our way out of this. We aren’t going to educate our way out of this," Kon said. "There’s not one end-all, solve-all."

Despite the increase in road fatalities this year, the number of impaired drivers hitting the road seems to have decreased. By mid-December, some 21,894 driving-while-intoxicated arrests had been made. At the same time in 2019, authorities made 26,668 such arrests.

Hanson said the limitations put on bars and restaurants to slow the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, might explain the decrease. But the amount of DWI arrests made this year are still substantial enough to indicate that Minnesotans are finding other ways and places to get their fix.

Minnesota is seeing the surge in traffic deaths as it moves closer to the winter holiday season, when traffic and travel are historically high. History might not repeat itself this holiday season, however, according to a new report from AAA.

The motor club and insurance agency forecasts that 84.5 million Americans will travel between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3, 34 million fewer than last year. That still indicates a sizable chunk of the U.S. population is eager to head home for the holidays, however, even as the pandemic rages.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised against making holiday travel plans, and similarly advised against doing so for Thanksgiving. AAA had previously forecast that up to 50 million Americans would travel on the latter holiday, a 10% decline from 2019.

With fewer people choosing to fly, AAA said most of the people who do plan to travel in the coming weeks will likely do so by car. That makes safe driving practices especially important.

"Any fatal crash, even one, is way too many. And they're all tragic," Hanson said. "But when they occur during the holiday season, that's only exponentially worse for the family and friends and whoever else that has to say goodbye to a loved one."

Contact Matthew Guerry at mguerry@forumcomm.com or 651-321-4314