Wisconsin, Minnesota expecting near record-low numbers for traffic crashes

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line staff writer | Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Upper Midwest neighbors Minnesota and Wisconsin are known for their frigid winters. They may also soon be known for something else too – a decreasing number of traffic fatalities.

Both states are in line to post some of the lowest numbers in recorded traffic fatalities in years, according to preliminary data from each state’s Department of Transportation. Safety officials in both states point to a combination of new technologies, better education, and better enforcement for seat belts and drunk driving, as the recipe for success in bringing the number of traffic deaths closer to zero.

The number of fatalities includes not only motorists, but passengers and even pedestrians throughout the entire state. Officials in both states said the entire National Highway Transportation Safety Administration region, which includes Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, are combining new policies, new construction and data-driven approaches to make roadways safer.

In Wisconsin the total number of traffic fatalities was 527 in 2013, slightly below a five-year average of 559, according to David Pabst, director of transportation safety. As of last week, the number for 2014 was 498, which is the lowest number since 1943. Final numbers are expected to be released later this spring.

“Nationwide, the fatalities are going down,” Pabst said in an interview with Land Line. “We’re part of NHTSA Region 5, and almost everyone is going down. All these factors we’re talking about are having an effect across the country – better roads, better designs. Each state has their own nuances on what they’re doing. Minnesota is using flashing lights at troublesome intersections. We’re doing roundabouts and center rumble strips. The next hot thing will be cable barriers. There’s just all this engineering going on in the background across the country because what one state discovers, the next will copy.”

In Minnesota, the number is even lower – 358 fatalities in 2014 as of Jan. 26, according to Donna Berger, the state’s director of the Office of Traffic Safety. The state’s all-time low is 356, set in 1944.

“We will not have final numbers until May, (but) we believe we’re going to have the second-lowest number of fatalities since 1944,” Berger said in a phone interview with Land Line. “We’re trying to move our (incidents) to zero. The trend lines don’t matter to those who’ve lost loved ones on the highway.” 

Pabst said seat belt and drunken-driving enforcement in Wisconsin is contributing to an overall reduction in traffic deaths over the last five years.

“Seat belt use higher than it’s ever been,” he said. “That’s a really strong factor in saving lives. We’re at nearly 85 percent (statewide) … People are wearing their seatbelts, but cars and roads are also safer as well, so engineering has a big factor in that.”

Berger said her department works closely with other statewide agencies on both education and enforcement initiatives. She also credits Minnesota’s legislature for reducing the legal limit for drunken driving in 2005. The Gopher State was the last to adopt the .08 blood-alcohol content standard. The state also bans texting while driving and has a primary seat belt law in place for all seating positions.

“We can’t really pinpoint to one thing,” she said. “All of those things working together are what we believe are driving the numbers in the right direction.”

Minnesota’s seat belt law went into effect in 2009. The law requires children to be in a booster seat from age 4 to age 8. Overall, Berger said the state is seeing a 95-percent compliance rate.

“That’s all types of drivers, and it’s throughout the state, so it is statistically significant,” she said.

When it comes to commercial vehicles, the numbers tell a slightly different story. Pabst said Wisconsin’s crash data shows that crashes involving trucks have been “pretty steady” over the past several years.

“It’s a stubborn number to move,” he said. “We’re trying to get (car) drivers to understand to give (truckers) room. We have to educate not only truck drivers but the drivers around them how to behave.”

Berger agrees.

“What we found is that nine of the 67 people killed in truck crashes were in the truck. Only 21 percent (of truck drivers) were seriously injured,” she said. “We know when you’re putting the truck against a passenger vehicle, the truck is probably going to win that battle. So we feel it’s very important to try to get the word out about blind spots, and driving around the trucks. Give the trucks plenty of room, room to merge. They need more space. Do your part (as a motorist) and give them room.”

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