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Traffic fatalities lowest in Minn. in nearly 75 years; ND and SD on downward swing, but steady last year

ST. PAUL—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).

In the neighboring states of North Dakota and South Dakota, traffic deaths stayed about the same as last year, but are also showing signs of dropping significantly.

"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, Minnesota averaged roughly 608 deaths per year. In the past 10 years, the average is 395.

Toward Zero Deaths is a multifaceted approach to eliminating roadway deaths through education, roadway engineering and law enforcement. 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 roadways.

Of the 2017 Minnesota 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."

In North Dakota, preliminary numbers indicate the state had 113 traffic fatalities in 2017, according to the state Highway Patrol. The same number of traffic deaths was reported in 2016.

Those numbers are down from the 131 fatalities seen in 2015 and 135 in 2014.

In 2013, traffic deaths totaled 148 in North Dakota, and in 2012 the number was 170. In 2011, the number of traffic fatalities in the state was 148, and in 2010 it was 105.

Lt. Michael Roark of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said factors that work to reduce fatal crashes include laws such as those requiring seat-belt use, as well as consistent enforcement of safety rules.

He said motorists can cut their chances of being involved in a serious crash by doing simple things, like slowing down and not using cruise control when road conditions are bad.

Cellphone use and other distractions also contribute to the chances a driver will run into trouble, Roark said.

As for South Dakota, it looked as if they were heading for a record low number. That was until September, when "a rash" of fatal crashes started the upswing.

But it was from mid-October to the end of the month that really swelled numbers, when South Dakota roads tallied 11 fatal crashes. That boosted the total number of fatalities after a quiet start to the year.

Until then, the state was on pace to fall below 100 annual fatalities for the first time ever. In 2016, there were 116 fatalities on South Dakota roads, the second-lowest total in state history.

Then another surge of fatalities hit in December, bringing the total number of fatal crashes for the year even higher.

The South Dakota Department of Public Safety would not release the total number of fatalities in 2017, but did say there were more deaths on state roads than in 2016. As of October 31, 90 fatalities had been recorded, according to previous information from DPS, meaning there were at least 27 fatalities in November and December.

DPS will release the information in two to three weeks when all crash investigations have been filed, according to the department.

Reporters Dave Olson and Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story