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Minnesota traffic fatalities lowest in nearly 75 years

A preliminary figure released by the state on Wednesday indicates Minnesota experienced its lowest number of roadway fatalities in 74 years in 2017.

The 348 traffic deaths announced by the state is the lowest total since 1943 (274) and second-lowest since 1926 (326).

"It shows that in Minnesota we're on the right track to solving our traffic fatality issue," said Mike Hanson, the director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety. "We've come a long way in 15 years. We've cut that rate almost in half and it shows us we can make progress."

In the 10-year period prior to the implementation of its Toward Zero Deaths initiative in 2003, the state averaged roughly 608 deaths per year. In the past 10 years, the average is 395.

"TZD is working," said Holly Kostrzewski, the regional toward Zero Deaths coordinator for all of northern Minnesota who is based in Duluth.

Toward Zero Deaths is a multifaceted approach to eliminating roadway deaths through education, roadway engineering and law enforcement. In the Northland, it's apparent in a number of ways, including when law enforcement announces increased patrols for infractions such as driving under the influence, or the implementation of engineering solutions, such as roundabouts, and in a messaging campaign every Monday which finds a new safety tip posted on electronic signs along Interstate 35 and other roadways. On New Year's Day the signs asked drivers to resolve to both slow down and put their phones down.

Kostrzewski shared 2017 fatality numbers for the counties throughout the Northland:

• Aitkin 3

• Carlton 6

• Cook 0

• Itasca 5

• Koochiching 1

• Lake 3

• Pine 9

• St. Louis 18

Of the 2017 state-wide fatalities, 98 were alcohol-related, 82 speed-related, 80 included unbelted motorists and 16 involved distracted driving, said the state news release. State figures go back to 1910 when there were 23 fatalities. The most occurred in 1968, when there were 1,060 — one of four years historically with more than 1,000 roadway deaths.

Hanson called Toward Zero Deaths a foundation to declining fatality numbers, but added that there are other factors, including ever-improving trauma response and care as well as a general cooperation between agencies and the public.

He compared driving to walking into a grocery store, where one might hold the door open for a stranger or yield to foot traffic in polite ways.

"If we drive the way we act in Minnesota we can solve a lot of these problems," Hanson said. "It takes all of us working together and being involved and engaged to realize traffic crashes don't have to happen."