Minnesota bucks national trend of rising pedestrian deaths

By: - June 27, 2023 6:00 am

Photo by Getty Images.

Pedestrian traffic deaths on American roadways have risen to their highest level in over 40 years, according to a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. But Minnesota is bucking that national trend: Pedestrian deaths here have stabilized following a sharp uptick in the mid-2010s. 

In 2022, 46 Minnesota pedestrians were struck and killed by cars, according to the GHSA. That’s roughly on par with the number of deaths 2015, 2005 and 1995, although the count has fluctuated considerably in intervening years. 

Minnesota’s population has grown considerably over that time period, however, from roughly 4.6 million in 1995 to 5.7 million today. Adjusted for population the trend reflects a modest long-term decrease.

These pedestrian fatalities represent a subset of all fatal traffic accidents. In 2022, for instance, a total of 444 people were killed in car crashes in Minnesota, according to a preliminary count from the Department of Public Safety. That number is considerably higher than the typical number of annual deaths prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nationwide, pedestrian traffic fatalities increased by about 1% between 2021 and 2022. But in Minnesota they fell by 18% over the same period, from 56 to 46. Among the states, only Rhode Island, Iowa and North Dakota had lower rates of pedestrian deaths on the roadways. 

In New Mexico, the state with the highest rate of fatalities, pedestrians are nearly six times more likely to be killed by a car than they are here.

“The saddest part is that these crashes are preventable,” said GHSA CEO Jonathan Adkins. “We know what works — better-designed infrastructure, lower speeds, addressing risky driving behaviors that pose a danger to people walking.”

Alcohol impairment is a major factor in the crashes, the report notes, with roughly 30% of the killed pedestrians and 20% of the drivers who struck them exhibiting blood alcohol content levels greater than 0.08%. The overwhelming majority of fatal crashes nationwide occurred after dark, while in Minnesota most fatal crashes happened during the daylight hours. 

Underscoring the importance of pedestrian infrastructure, 69% of crashes took place on roads without sidewalks, up 10 percentage points since 2017. And a rapidly growing share of fatal crashes involve drivers in large, heavy sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

While the number of pedestrian fatalities has remained relatively stable, the number of all vehicle crashes involving pedestrians — fatal and non-fatal — has fallen by more than half since the 1990s.

In 1995 there were a little over 30 vehicle-pedestrian accidents for every 100,000 state residents, according to DPS data. By 2021 that number had dropped to about 14.

Today there are fewer vehicle crashes involving pedestrians than there were 20 years ago, but the collisions are much more likely to be fatal. In 1995, a little more than 3% of pedestrian accidents resulted in a pedestrian fatality. In 2021, the rate stood at more than 7%.

Those figures underscore something of a paradox: In many ways vehicles have become much safer over the years, with advances like backup cameras, stability control, blind spot detection and other innovations contributing to a steep decline in the number of collisions with pedestrians. 

But those vehicles are nevertheless bigger, heavier and more powerful than they were 30 years ago, especially the pickup trucks and SUVs that represent one of the fastest growing segments of the car market. When those vehicles collide with humans at highway speeds, the result is likely to be catastrophic.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.