Our View: For the sake of the kids -- and yourself -- slow down
On Sept. 1, an Olmsted County Sheriff's deputy pulled over a 16-year-old male driver in rural southwest Rochester. The teen was speeding, didn't have a driver's license, and the deputy found evidence of drug paraphernalia in the car.
The most alarming thing about this traffic stop is the fact that the deputy reported clocking the teen's car at 107 mph. But what's most surprising about this incident is that the teen got pulled over at all.
No, we're not saying that the Olmsted County Sheriff and/or the Rochester Police Department aren't doing their jobs. Quite the opposite, in fact. We're certain the law enforcement community is doing everything in its power to keep our roads as safe as possible.
But the reality is that across Minnesota, and indeed across the entire nation, the combination of the pandemic, increasing violent crime and short-staffed law-enforcement agencies have created what appears to be a perfect storm.
With people staying home during the pandemic, highways were less congested, and drivers sped up. Too often, law enforcement had other, more pressing matters to attend to, so speeders got used to getting away with it. Statewide convictions for speeding offenses in 2021 were down 17% compared to the averages from 2017-19.
But a lot of speeders paid a very heavy price, and so did some innocent victims. Speed-related traffic deaths in 2021 were up 45% in Minnesota compared to 2020, with overall traffic deaths at a 15-year high. That's despite the fact that cars have never been safer, and seat-belt use is at an all-time high. Speeding led to 171 fatalities on Minnesota roads last year, even more than were caused by alcohol.
Fortunately, there is some good news. Traffic deaths are down 11 percent this year compared to 2021 – perhaps because of high gas prices – and speeding deaths are down even more. Still, people are driving faster and more of them are dying on Minnesota highways than in the years prior to the pandemic.
And now it's back-to-school time, when young drivers, as well as a big crop of inexperienced bus drivers, will find themselves on the road during peak traffic periods. Days are getting shorter, and already kids are driving home from football games in darkness. It won't be long before winter weather will test their skills even more.
So, the last thing we need is a bunch of drivers whose idea of fun is to recreate scenes from the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise.
What can be done?
For starters, use your cruise control whenever possible. We're not telling you to go 55 in a 55 zone – we're not that naïve – but maintaining a steady speed with the traffic flow will keep you safer and conserve gas. A slow driver who clogs up the right lane can be almost as dangerous as the driver who treats U.S. 52 like the Daytona Speedway.
And of course, we all need to be hyper-aware of the presence of school buses at all hours of the day. To avoid a hefty fine and the possibility of an unthinkable tragedy, expect that stop arm to go out at any moment. And stop when those red lights go on - don't pass from either direction.
Also, we're big fans of the blinking signs that display a car's speed, such as the ones on Elton Hills Drive in Rochester or on County Road 1 on the north side of Spring Valley. (The ones in Spring Valley say “Thank you!” when you get under 30 mph, which is a nice touch.) We're fairly certain that, especially on city streets, a lot of speeding is unintentional, and those blinking speed readouts are a great reminder to slow down. If law enforcement is spread too thin to patrol adequately, we'd love to see more radar-equipped blinking signs.
But what about drivers who consistently and knowingly drive well above the speed limit on city streets and/or highways and freeways? If the state patrol and county sheriffs lack the staffing to rein in aggressive, dangerous drivers, what other options are there?
One possible answer likely wouldn't be very popular, but it could be very effective; namely, Minnesota could revisit the idea of photo-enforced traffic cameras, which was struck down by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2007.
Back then, a big problem with traffic cameras – specifically, red-light cameras in Minneapolis – was that the owner of a vehicle received the ticket, even if someone else was driving. The cameras didn't take great pictures, and vehicle owners had to prove they weren't guilty. In America, the burden of proof is supposed to lie with the prosecution.
Still, 25 states currently allow some form of photo-enforced traffic control for red lights and/or speeding. (Slow down in Iowa, especially in Chester and Cedar Rapids. They mean business down there.) The fines tend to be lower than if you are pulled over by a state trooper, and in most states these tickets do not result in “points” against one's license and aren't reported to insurance companies.
Traffic cameras and the images they capture have improved exponentially in the past 15 years, and if half the states in the nation are finding a way to make such systems work without violating the U.S. Constitution, then Minnesota should be able to, too.
Do we really want to go back to the day when a trip to the mailbox could result in an unpleasant and expensive surprise? Not really, but if that's what it takes to get drivers to slow down, then that might be the price we have to pay.
But for now, all we can say is slow down. If you have kids, model good driving for them, and make sure your high school students know that you'd rather have them be late for school (or curfew) than have them drive at an unsafe speed.
Finally, if you do get pulled over for speeding, be civil with the trooper, deputy or police officer. They have a tough job, and by issuing you a citation they are reducing the likelihood that someday they'll have to reconstruct the scene of an accident while you are being airlifted to a hospital.