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Chuck Haga, Published July 16 2009

2008 traffic fatalities in Minnesota lowest since 1945

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - It may be for the wrong reasons — high gas prices and rising unemployment -but the number of deaths on Minnesota roads tumbled in 2008 to the lowest total since the end of World War II.

The 455 traffic deaths statewide last year were 11 percent fewer than the 510 deaths recorded in 2007 and the lowest total since 1945, the state Department of Public Safety reports in its annual summary of motor vehicle crashes released today.

Just 163 deaths were connected to drinking, which the report says is an all-time low, but that number still accounts for 36 percent of all fatalities.

In eight counties of northwestern Minnesota, the 2008 numbers show a slight improvement over 2007: 18 deaths (including eight in Polk County) compared to 19 in 2007. In addition, 395 people were injured in traffic deaths in those eight counties, down 11 percent from 446 in 2007.

Two of the counties, Kittson and Marshall, recorded no fatal traffic accidents in 2008.

Statewide, the report showed a decline in the number of people ages 16 to 19 killed in traffic crashes, from 41 in 2007 to 31 in 2008, which the department credits to a new graduated driver’s licensing law for teens and a ban on texting and emailing while driving.

But 72 motorcycle fatalities in 2008 represented the highest death total since 1985. Motorcycles accounted for just 5 percent of registered vehicles in Minnesota but 16 percent of all traffic deaths last year, according to the summary.

Officials acknowledged that unemployment and gas prices were partially responsible for the improved 2008 traffic numbers. But Cheri Marti, director of the department’s Office of Traffic Safety, also credited enhanced enforcement targeting seat belt use, speeding and impaired driving.

Highway engineering improvements, such as cable median barriers, also are preventing some crashes, she said, and improved emergency response “has increased chances of survival for crash victims, especially in rural communities.”

Marti said the state’s seat-belt compliance rate of 87 percent is strong, but only 45 percent of accident fatalities were using their seat belts. The department expects that percentage to grow following the state’s passage of a primary seat belt law earlier this year.

The sharp decline in highway deaths continues a decade-long trend. The state recorded 568 fatalities in 2001, 657 in 2002 and 655 in 2003.

However, 212 people have lost their lives on Minnesota roads so far this year, up slightly from 208 deaths at this time last year.

The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.