By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — For the first time in five years traffic deaths increased in Minnesota for 2012 and a spike in motorcycle crashes is being cited as a main factor.
There were 378 people killed in crashes last year compared to 368 deaths in 2011.
Although the numbers were up for 2012, the total number of deaths on Minnesota roads in last year was still the second lowest it has been since 1944, said Lt. Eric Roeske, State Patrol public information officer.
“Of course we always want numbers to go down, but we’re still making progress when you look at historical figures,” he said. “Especially when you look at the early 2000s when we had more than 650 deaths per year.”
The number of people killed while driving cars, trucks and SUVs was actually down to 281 in 2012 from 283 in 2011. And the same number of pedestrians, 38, were killed in traffic crashes both years.
The number of motorcyclists killed increased from 42 in 2011 to 53 in 2012. There also were six bicyclists killed last year, up from five in 2011.
In Blue Earth County traffic deaths dropped from eight in 2011 to five in 2012, but two of last years fatalities were from motorcycle crashes in Mankato. Zachary Abdo, 20, of North Mankato died from injuries he received when he crashed his motorcycle on Raintree Road on Aug. 31. Jeni Johnson, 35, of Vernon Center was killed Sept. 24. She was thrown from her motorcycle when she attempted to stop for a car that pulled out in front of her on Highway 22 from the South Victory Drive intersection.
Roeske said a warm winter and an early start to the motorcycle season likely contributed to the increase in motorcycle deaths in 2012, which had already surpassed 2011’s numbers before the end of September. But he said the warm weather might also be to blame for other traffic deaths not going down more than they did.
Roads were more crowded because wintery weather didn’t keep people at home and those on the road were moving faster because drivers weren’t worried about slippery spots and other winter hazards. So the message for 2013 is the same message troopers send out repeatedly: Slow down, wear your seat belt, don’t drink and drive, and avoid distractions, Roeske said.
“Although we have a higher volume of crashes in the winter, most fatalities are in the summer due to speed and the number of people on the roads,” he said. “Regardless of the numbers, we still see the same factors involved: speed, alcohol and seat belts.”
An effort by public safety officials to repeat that message throughout the years has contributed to dropping traffic fatalities, but there are many other factors bringing the death counts down, Roeske said. Better highways, improved vehicle safety equipment and advances in emergency medical care also are saving lives.