Driver behavior in Minnesota has become so bad that Mike Hanson said he is running out of adjectives to describe it.
"Horrific. Tragic. Sad," said Hanson, director of the Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety.
The recent fatal shooting of youth baseball coach Jay Boughton as he drove on a west metro highway was all of those things, and it should be unnerving for any motorist, he said. Police said the shooting may have stemmed from a "traffic altercation." That's frightening for Hanson, whose career in law enforcement and traffic safety spans more than 35 years.
"You should not have to be terrified about being shot if you make a mistake behind the wheel," he said.
The July 6 incident on Hwy. 169 at Rockford Road shows highway shootings are something drivers now have to think about, Hanson said.
"The violence is unprecedented," he said. "The behaviors are significantly worse [than before]. What we are seeing is a reflection of what we see in society."
That's vexing for officials already trying to find ways to rein in a surge in risk-taking and reckless behavior behind the wheel. DPS defines "reckless" as behavior that is generally intentional, or behavior that a driver should know could injure or kill someone.
Speeding is near the top of the list. As of July 11, 85 motorists have died in crashes in which speeding was a contributing factor, accounting for 38% of the 224 traffic fatalities so far this year. The second-most speeding-related deaths so early in the year happened in 2018, when there were 58, according to DPS.
Crash data from the past five years show failure to yield the right of way, tailgating, erratic driving, improper lane changes and distracted driving are among the top reckless behaviors leading to crashes, DPS said.
"They are all preventable," Hanson said. "Innocent Minnesotans are paying the price for selfish choices."
So what can be done?
John Palmer with the Minnesota Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association says the state needs to boost investment in driver's education. Twenty years ago the Legislature cut funds to improve driver education curriculum, and it's showing, he said.
"If you stop investing in material used by teachers, you end up with things being taught incorrectly. Not surprisingly, the quality of driving behavior declines," he said.
Minnesota's Toward Zero Deaths initiative seeks to reduce traffic fatalities to 225 in four years, and eventually to none. Members of the traffic safety group recently met to devise strategies to drive traffic deaths down.
Their conclusion was that even with enforcement campaigns — a speeding crackdown is running through July 31 — drivers need to voluntarily comply with traffic laws. That means going the speed limit, wearing seat belts, driving sober and not trying to get even with misbehaving drivers, Hanson said.
Last week, the Minnesota Department of Transportation launched a new "Let's Move Safely Together" campaign, with the message that travelers need to take a cooperative approach to cure the ills plaguing the roads.
"When we work as a team and watch out for each other, we can save lives and make progress Toward Zero Deaths," said MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
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