Minnesota, even with safe roads, sees surge in traffic fatalities | Commentary

November 29, 2021 6:13 am

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Minnesota is experiencing one of the deadliest years on record for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. Some 411 people have died in traffic accidents this year, up from 394 for the entire year of 2020 and 364 in 2019.

This increase in overall fatalities is particularly troubling because Minnesotans have been driving less in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MnDOT data shows a dramatic uptick in speed-related crashes, which has been made possible by reduced traffic due to the pandemic. High-speed crashes tend to be much more severe, and worse yet when passengers aren’t wearing seat belts.

While the increase in deaths is cause for concern, Minnesota’s interstates before the pandemic had the fifth-lowest fatality rate in the nation and Minnesota’s state highways and local roads had third-lowest fatality rate, according to 2019 data from the transportation research nonprofit TRIP.

The fatality rate on Minnesota’s interstates was 0.23 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled (100 MVM), while New Hampshire had the lowest fatality rate at 0.19 deaths per 100 MVM and Wyoming had the highest fatality rate at 1.36 deaths per 100 MVM.

The fatality rate on all other Minnesota roads was 0.70 deaths per 100 MVM, while Massachusetts had the lowest fatality rate with 0.58 deaths per 100 MVM and South Carolina had the highest fatality rate at 2.14 deaths per 100 MVM.

Unlike other commonly used traffic-safety metrics, such as total crashes or total fatalities, fatality rates account for changes in the number of drivers on the road and mileage driven, creating a metric that can be used to compare traffic safety across states.

Although crash rates can also be used as a metric of traffic safety, car crashes can have varying severity. For example, the most common type of car crash in Minnesota is a rear-end crash in the suburbs.

While this type of crash will ruin a driver’s day, it typically does not cause an injury. That’s why the fatality rate is a more important metric to look at when trying to understand how safe a state’s roads are.

Minnesota’s low non-interstate fatality rate is something to be particularly proud of. Interstates have a standard design, and plans are reviewed by the federal government, whereas state highways and county roads have different design standards across jurisdictions. Interstates are exclusively used by cars and trucks, while pedestrians and bicyclists may use sidewalks and trails on state highways.

Car crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists typically have a severe outcome, and other severe two-vehicle accidents, such as head-on collisions and t-bone crashes, are not possible on interstates because they are controlled-access divided highways.

This helps explain why interstates have a lower fatality rate than state highways despite an interstate’s higher speed, and it adds complexity to the geometry of intersections and segments of road.

Minnesota’s low fatality rate on non-interstate roads indicates that Minnesota’s local road planners are among the best in the nation in designing safe roads for all modes of transportation.

But even with safe roads, Minnesotans need to do their part by driving at safe, reasonable speeds, buckling our seat belts and resisting the urge to use our cell phones while driving.

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Blake Andert
Blake Andert

Blake Andert is a licensed engineer-in-training, and he currently works as a transportation engineer. He is a lifelong resident of Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering.