After a difficult year that saw a spike in traffic deaths related to unsafe driving, local law enforcement officials are urging drivers to recommit to driving safely in 2021.

Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn is deeply discouraged by the numbers overall, which came as overall traffic fell due to COVID-19. Despite extensive education and enforcement campaigns by law enforcement, he said that trends are clearly not going in the right direction.

“We need to get back to the basics,” he said. “That means that people need to make paying attention to what they’re doing on the roadways a priority.”

Steele County Sheriff's Deputy Kari Woltman said that similar trends are being seen across the region. She attributed the increase in bad driving behaviors to a sense among some members of the public that law enforcement is "stepping back" on enforcement due to a fear of contracting COVID-19. 

"I think that’s kind of the thought from the general public," she said. "But we’re still out there stopping cars, while keeping ourselves safe as best we can."

Owatonna Police Capt. Eric Rethemeier assured motorists that strict enforcement of the state's traffic safety laws will continue into 2020, with several enforcement and awareness campaigns in the works.

"It will be business as usual," he said.

While it will be months before the state releases official, final figures as part of its annual Crash Facts Report, preliminary figures released Monday painted a dire picture. In total, 394 people lost their lives on Minnesota roadways last year, up 30 from 2019.

Before the report was even released, 2021 got off to an unpleasant start with roadway safety as the first traffic fatality of 2021 was reported. In Victoria, a 49-year-old woman was killed when her SUV made contact with a semi. The crash is still under investigation.

Particularly alarming was the increase in speed-related fatalities as well as speeding citations. According to the Office of Traffic Safety, the number of speeding tickets issued to those going over 100 mph essentially doubled from 2019 to 2020.

Speed was a factor in 118 traffic fatalities this year, compared to 72 last year, surpassing impairment as the most common factor involved with fatal collisions. Failure to wear a seat belt took a big jump as well, rising from 73 associated fatalities in 2019 to 102 in 2020.

In Rice County, 10 individuals lost their lives on the roads this year, nine in a vehicle and one on an ATV. Of those in a vehicle, all but one were unbelted while in the other case, distracted driving was involved.

Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen said that it's no coincidence that the number of unbelted crash victims has risen. Overall, Bohlen said that the number of seat belt and child restraint citations handed out by his department rose significantly.

Buckling up couldn’t have necessarily saved all of those lives, but it continues to be the most important safety feature in every vehicle, mainly because it dramatically reduces the chances of being ejected from the vehicle during a crash. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of fatality by 45% and serious injury by 50%. In total, wearing a seat belt has saved more than 300,000 lives from 1960 to 2012, according to the NHTSA.

Distracted driving deaths were also up, rising to 30 statewide from 27 last year, even though 2020 was the first full year that the state’s “Hands Free” law has been in effect, barring motorists from holding a cellphone while driving.

Prior to the change, motorists were only prohibited from texting while driving. However, the challenge of identifying whether someone was texting or using their phone in a different manner limited enforcement.

One modest bright spot was a very modest preliminary decrease in impaired driving-related fatalities. Figures show 109 traffic deaths linked to impaired driving, down from 111 last year, though the decrease in drivers arrested for DWIs fell by a full 19%.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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