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Traffic down, fatalities up: Speeding is ‘everywhere across the state right now’

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are taking advantage of the recent change in state law that allows larger cities to set their own speed limits.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are taking advantage of the recent change in state law that allows larger cities to set their own speed limits.

Ask most anyone, and speeding is on the rise. Streets are emptier than they’ve been in decades, and with police somewhat preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, some Minnesota drivers see a permission slip to drive as fast as they want. As both Star Tribune and MPR recently pointed out, even as traffic is down by half on Minnesota highways and crashes have declined, fatalities are up from last year.

There is probably only one reason for that: People are driving way too fast.

“As an agency, we’ve definitely seen an increase in speeds,” said Gordon Shank, public information officer for the Minnesota State Patrol. “Over Minnesota roadways, from March 22 to April 13, troopers cited 78 people for going 100 plus miles per hour. That’s compared to 2019, where they only issued 22. That’s a big difference.”

As Sgt. Shank points out, the rash of high-speed tickets bodes poorly for safety on Minnesota roads. For as long as cars existed, speed has been the major driver of injury and death, and even small reductions in speed can make huge differences in whether people survive a crash.

“We’re seeing it all across the state, too,” said Shank. “We had someone in Thief River Falls going 91 in in a 60. In Hennepin County, we had three vehicles cited for going more than 90, including one that was at 122 miles per hour. It’s everywhere across the state right now.”

Anecdotal data

The eye-popping anecdotes matter because, even for the State Patrol, it’s hard to get solid data about speeding. For this story, I reached out to the police departments in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington, and nobody has an accurate count on exactly how much speeding is happening on city streets during the last month.

“It’s all anecdotal, but I do hear from patrol officers,” said Commander Jack Serier, of the St. Paul Police Department. “First, the streets don’t have nearly the traffic volume. What I’ve been hearing is that they witness a lot of people driving fast. Part of it is because there is frankly more open roadway. It’s not as cluttered with cars now, so they’re speeding more.”

Metropolitan Council
Somehow, in the era of big tech, speeding remains notoriously difficult to measure. The only firm data are traffic citations, but with wide variations in enforcement and many stops without documentation, those counts are inconsistent and unreliable. Meanwhile, public works departments don’t regularly conduct speed studies, especially these days. Even when they do, deploying with black rubber tubes or on radar guns, those studies are typically limited to 100 cars.

The lack of information makes speeding a difficult topic to handle for policy professionals. That’s why it’s so difficult to get a good look into the precise causes of the COVID-19 fatal crash paradox. But the clues that do exist seem to point in one direction, leaving speeding as the one prime suspect.

Crashes down, fatalities up

“Overall crashes are down, multi-unit crashes are down, but fatalities are slightly up and serious injuries are up, so that’s weird,” said Nichole Morris, Ph.D., who runs the HumanFIRST Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. “You wouldn’t expect that. To me, that is a given that it’s speed, because if crashes are fewer, but severity is greater, than its a physics problem. People are just going faster.”

For years, Morris and her lab have been heavily involved in researching the complex intersection of speeding and driver psychology, particularly along city streets. She finds the contradictory trends on Minnesota highways over the past month to be confusing. According to some recent speed study data from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety — the ones with the radar guns on the freeways — results about current speed trends were oddly mixed. At least in some places, speeding in general is flat, if you average it out.

“Transportation safety is so complicated; it’s not one thing, it’s a billion things moving together and canceling each other out,” explained Morris. “Speeding might be up for some people, but down for other people. You have some risk-takers or sensation-seeking people that are going to be driven to speed, and are engaging in more risk and uninhibited by traffic. But there are likely other people that are normally speeding right now, but are not speeding because — my assumption is that the vast majority of people who speed, do it for time pressure — no one’s late and we have nowhere to be right now.”

But even for the meticulous Morris, with overall crashes down, traffic down, and even DUIs down from a year ago, it’s difficult to explain the increase in fatalities without taking speed into account.

Other than cops, what can be done?

As the blunt saying goes, speed kills. The faster you drive, the less time you have to react and the more force is on the line if you do hit someone or something.

“Since COVID started, statewide traffic crashes overall are down significantly, but fatal traffic crashes are up significantly,” said Ethan Fawley, who heads the Vision Zero program for the City of Minneapolis. “Certainly what I’ve seen suggests that speeding and aggressive driving are key factors in that.”

The rash of speeding comes at an odd time for Minneapolis, which launched its ambitious Vision Zero plan just last year, aimed at eliminating fatal crashes within the city. Somewhat ironically, given the trends, a big part of the effort was reducing speed limits. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are taking advantage of the recent change in state law that allows larger cities to set their own speed limits. As a result, 20- and 25-miles-per-hour signs have been popping up on streets all through the urban core.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A 20-miles-per-hour street sign on Chatsworth Avenue in St. Paul.
It’s a change that might have gone unnoticed, given the lack of traffic.

“We’ve had to adjust our plans for getting out the word for speed-limit changes,” explained Fawley. “The reason why is a bit because of COVID, but we’ll be ramping that up in the coming weeks. We’re really trying to reach communities in different ways.”

One of the efforts that is on hold is the lawn sign campaign; Fawley and his St. Paul counterparts are currently warehousing thousands of “Twenty is Plenty” lawn signs that they’d love to distribute when events become possible again.

In the meantime, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board are tweaking some of the streets in the hopes of removing or reducing speeding cars and “opening them up” for people on foot or bike. Most notably, Minneapolis launched an ambitious “Stay Healthy Streets” plan that creates three “loops” through the city, with streets limited (on the honor system) to local traffic only.

Minneapolis launched an ambitious “Stay Healthy Streets” plan that creates three “loops” through the city, with streets limited to local traffic only.
Photo by Scott Shaffer
Minneapolis launched an ambitious “Stay Healthy Streets” plan that creates three “loops” through the city, with streets limited to local traffic only.
“We have put out our stay healthy streets,” explained Fawley. “Our intention with the loop routes is to use local residential streets where we are hearing complaints about speeding, as we have for years. Within those we’re including elements we think will encourage people to drive at safer, slower speeds and make that more of a reality.”

The three loops provide more than 15 miles of streets in the city where, hopefully, people can get exercise and fresh air without the threat of cars speeding around.

But for Fawley, the new loops are just the beginning. The widespread changes in the Vision Zero plan will, if they work, lower speed all through Minneapolis and St. Paul. Fawley and other transportation planners envision cities where speeding is a rare anomaly, rather than a constant threat.

In the meantime, however, there’s a lot of work to do.

City of Minneapolis

Culture shift needed

“We can’t just snap our fingers and have very street in the city look different,” explained Fawley. “Regardless, we’re going to rely on a collective culture of saying we care about ourselves and our community, and we will drive at a safe speeds. It has to be a combination of both creating culture collectively and, over time, having the infrastructure that encourages that.”

During the stay-at-home order, with traffic reduced by almost half and the temptation of ever more powerful cars, the current situation remains precarious. Both Fawley and the officers tasked with reining in drivers realize that policing has to come alongside a culture shift, with a willingness of Twin Cities drivers to slow down.

“We can’t enforce our way out of it; we’ve got to get everyone to commit to driving safely,” said Gordon Shank, of the State Patrol. “We’re still doing our job.”

Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/07/2020 - 10:43 am.

    Speed CAN kill, and sometimes does, so I don’t dismiss the conclusions of the people cited, but I’d also like to see an examination of other factors that are even harder to measure, but – to me, at least – seem just as important.

    One of those factors is seat belt use. I know, I know, Minnesotans are allegedly all law-abiding citizens, but without measuring it scientifically, I’ll just say that I’ve seen a lot of drivers in my corner of the metro who aren’t bothering with seat belts – just as I see dog-walkers who carry leashes for their animals without actually using them. Unless you’re in a Formula 1 car or something from NASCAR, it’s unlikely that your car’s designer team built in features that will save your life if you’re going 100 mph, but 60 certainly seems feasible, and unless the fatalities ALL came from crashes at VERY high speeds – such as those instances cited of 90+ mph – I’m pretty skeptical that speed per se is the primary driver (no pun intended) of injuries and fatalities. Doing 30 in a 20 can be fatal if you’re not wearing a seat belt.

    The other factor, likely impossible to measure, but which could easily inundate any commentary space if everyone told just one story, is inattention. I moved here from Colorado, where aggressiveness is endemic. Everyone on the Colorado Front Range wants to be at the head of the line of traffic, no matter how fast the line is moving. In my corner of the Twin Cities metro, instead of aggressiveness, the issue is obliviousness. Whether going too fast for road conditions, or not being even a little bit situation-aware, I find myself sharing the road with people who appear never to look more than 2 car lengths ahead of the front of their vehicle, or have no idea how to merge with highway traffic.

    One of the things that makes speed a contributing factor to deaths and injuries is speed differential, and one of my pet peeves is the geezer or geezerette who pulls into a line of 60 mph traffic on I-694 or MN 100 at 35 or 40 mph and then gets annoyed by all the people honking, flipping him/her off, etc. It’s the same sort of passive aggressiveness that allows them (since the recent law is seldom enforced) to block the left lane because they’re either not paying attention, or they’ve decided God has magically given them the authority to determine how fast traffic in that lane should be moving. And by the way, I’m 75, so I qualify as a geezer myself.

    This issue is as old as wheeled transportation. 150 years ago, people complained about buggies and stagecoaches going too fast, and, if you carry the anti-speeding argument out to its logical conclusion, we should all go back to walking, where speeding is not likely to be an issue. I’m a more cautious driver at 75 than I was at 25, and suspect that driver age might well be a 3rd factor that doesn’t usually get considered when compiling statistics. The trick is to find a balance that will be tolerated by most, and that’s a constant juggling act.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 05/07/2020 - 01:12 pm.

      From what I was told by multiple sources for this piece, the big four factors are speed, intoxication, inattention, and seat belt use (or lack thereof).

      The issue going on here is the paradox between decreased traffic overall, fewer crashes, but higher fatalities. do you think the pandemic has caused people to not wear their seat belts? Personally, I doubt it. It is possible that the pandemic has increased stress, causing inattention / distraction. But I’d guess the biggest change is speed. But as I point out in the article, definitive data is very difficult to come by.

      And those four factors are the prime suspects only for least that’s true for freeway driving. For urban settings, especially non-motorized crashes, there are a lot more complicated things involved. Those first four, yes, but also street design and vehicle design (e.g. the larger cars and higher truck/SUV hoods).

      Anyway, if we focus just on the last six weeks and solving the mystery here, it would sure seem that speeding is our guilty culprit.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/07/2020 - 04:38 pm.

      It’s a reasonable hypothesis that those who are less prone to seat belt use in the first place are also more likely to go out more frequently during a pandemic lock down.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/08/2020 - 09:59 am.

        Safety features can only provide so much protection. It’s also possible that speeders assume all their safety features make it “safe” to crash, so they drive riskier.

    • Submitted by john dale on 05/10/2020 - 10:02 am.

      Hello, does anyone ever look at northern Europe’s solution to speeders
      Fine is attached to your income, duh. Would you speed when you know
      that the fine could be $20,000 euro? Hell you want to stop speeders on the spot take their cars, fine their asses and lock’em up. Let’em call their lawyers, lock up their lawyers. At some point you reach diminishing returns,
      you have won the battle
      Maybe there is a different solution, Hire someone like Pavlov to dampen the urge to speed, you speed, you get an undesirable response (you wet your pants)

  2. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 05/07/2020 - 11:01 am.

    Bill, I appreciate the maps included with your essay. They really do flesh out the 20 mph vs. 30 mph change.

  3. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 05/07/2020 - 11:55 am.

    Speed can kill, particularly when the driver is not trained to drive at speed.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 05/07/2020 - 01:13 pm.

      Worth noting that the US has very lax driver training and education, and they’re even giving licenses to teenagers without any testing in Georgia now.

      Also, I’d say that “trained to speed” might work differently in freeway v. urban setting. In a walkable city street with a lot of different users, there’s no safe way to exceed the fatal 30 mph threshold in my opinion.

      • Submitted by ian wade on 05/07/2020 - 10:20 pm.

        It’s not only Georgia. Wisconsin just announced that they would begin granting new drivers a license without passing a road test. That’s terrifying.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/07/2020 - 11:59 am.

    Bill, what do you make of the article that came out today advocating for eliminating driver’s license suspensions for unpaid tickets? One article is about the dangers of speeding, and the other is about reducing the consequences for speeding.

  5. Submitted by Robert McManus on 05/07/2020 - 12:13 pm.

    People should not be driving. The sooner we have the vast majority of drivers out from behind the wheel, the better.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/07/2020 - 12:18 pm.

    If anyone doubts how dangerous speeding is, I’d recommend anyone take the Minnesota Safety Council Safe Driver’s Course and get a sobering demonstration to be convinced.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 05/07/2020 - 10:22 pm.

      Especially in the era of the truck and SUV. Those vehicles are top heavy which makes them prone to roll over when over-correcting at higher speeds.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/07/2020 - 04:41 pm.

    The culture shift that is needed is by traffic engineers, who for too long have had tunnel vision.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/08/2020 - 09:56 am.

    Maybe I missed it but how can someone write an article like this about rising fatalities without providing numbers? What exactly are we talking about here? And where are these fatal crashes happening, on the freeways or the city streets or both? We need to know that information in order to form any kind of effective response.

    Frankly I don’t see any mystery here, and if we weren’t talking about fatalities the bewilderment here would be kind of comical. My experience is that my speeds have been creeping up on the freeways because of the lack of traffic. Psychologically I think people get velocitized and creep up speeds because the freeways are actually designed for speed. Congestion doesn’t just slow you down physically, it requires more attention, and you tend so slow down in scenarios that require more attentiveness. How is this not obvious?

    Different drivers have different profiles as well, we’ve long know that some drivers self perceive as more skilled than they are, so it could just be that we have poorly skilled drivers facing more severe consequences because the physics. After all, driving too fast for the conditions, multi-tasking instead of attending to the road, etc. etc. are indications of poor driving habits and skills.

    It would interesting to know what kind of vehicles are involved in these crashes. Another of my own experiences with a brand new Honda CRV is that this has so many safety features it’s easy to relax and stop paying attention. The car keeps itself in the lane, brakes and speeds up according to the cruise control, all features that in theory make the car safer to drive, but can also reduce the drivers need to attend to the scenario. I personally think that some of our accidents are being caused when people put too much trust in these safety features and forget that the still have to drive their car or truck. And all of these features can encourage speeding as well.

    This whole conversation simply illustrates a point I’ve been making for decades with “planners”, and urban studies, and traffic engineers… they all seem they can “design” our way into safety when in fact safety will always primarily rely on responsible human behavior. Yes, some designs are certainly better than others, roundabouts being a good example; no design will obviate the need to avoid accidents. Speaking of which:

    No one is going to dive 20 MPH on city streets, you’re just going to multiply violations with this scheme. We drive on streets to get where we’re going and any scheme that pretends our streets serve some other function is probably doomed. There is simply no substitute for safe and responsible behavior, we’re not going to “design” our way out of this.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 05/08/2020 - 01:47 pm.

      Paul, here are the numbers:

      20 fatalities in April.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/09/2020 - 10:28 am.

        Thanks for the link Mr. Lindeke.

        I hate to say it but if you look at this data pretty much tells us we don’t have anything to discuss. The “increases” in fatalities this year are almost exactly the same (in fact a little lower) as those seen last year at this time.

        This year: “There were 20 fatal crashes in April, compared with 17 last year.There were 21 fatalities in March, compared with 18 last year.”

        Last year: “There were 22 fatal crashes in March compared with 17 last year. There were 23 fatalities in March compared with 18 last year.”

        The discussion here is probably organized around the statistical fallacy that associates correlation with causation… i.e increased fatalities must have been the result of increased traffic or cars on the road in the first place. The expectation that fewer cars on the road would lead to fewer fatalities was/is probably a flawed statistical assumption.

        More than likely fatal crashes are simply caused by reckless drivers who are driving around no matter how many other cars on the road with them. These drivers may be just as likely to crash their cars regardless of congestion. We may have hit a plateau of sorts regarding safety design wherein the seat belts, air bags, safety glass, ABS brakes, frame designs, etc. that have been decreasing fatalities for decades have reached the outer boundaries of their ability to limit injury and fatality. The remaining reckless drivers are just crashing their cars at such high speeds that the design can’t save them. In fact, these drivers may be driving even more recklessly under the assumption that their cars will protect if they DO crash. You may decrease the over-all number of cars on the roads, but as long as THESE drivers are still driving, they’re going to have fatal crashes.

        • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 05/12/2020 - 09:13 am.

          The reason it’s surprising is that, if crashes, trips, and DUIs are down significantly, you’d expect fatalities to follow.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/13/2020 - 10:40 am.

            “… you’d expect fatalities to follow.”

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/13/2020 - 11:09 am.

            “… you’d expect fatalities to follow.”

            My point is that the expectations are obviously flawed. The factors responsible these expectations are obviously not as significant as some have been assuming for years. And the numbers themselves aren’t clear. For instance there are 6 more alcohol related deaths this year than there were at the same time last year, so maybe DUI arrests aren’t predictive of fatality reduction. And the DUI arrests this year are only down by about 500 (7,500 compared to 8,500 last year) so what kind of correlation would you expect and why? Sometimes you need more qualitative analysis and less quantitative analysis.

            For instance, it could be that while the over-all number of CD drivers has decreased, those left on the roads are more severely CD, and more prone to reckless driving; combine THAT with the increased speeds and maybe you can explain the 6 additional fatalities. A simple attempt to correlate DUI’s with fatalities may not make sense.

  9. Submitted by John Bolton on 05/10/2020 - 09:16 am.

    One thing that sticks out at me on this map are the parkways. They were previously the lower-speed oasis and now they are, comparatively, the higher speed alternative at 25 MPH. Is the park board going to adopt 20-is-plenty here too? These are mostly curving roads, lots of gawking going on with very high cycling/pedestrian interaction. Baffles me why they don’t temporarily implement their long-term plan for reconfiguring these roadways with removable signs and barricades. Seems like the perfect opportunity to trial these proposals out.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/10/2020 - 11:22 am.

      The speed limit on the parkways has been 25 for as long as I can remember- 40 years of driving around here. You can drop it to 20 but you’re not going to see those speeds. Technically it’s actually difficult to drive that slow in a car. 20 mph actually requires much more work and constant attention. In any scenario you want people situationally aware, looking at the road etc. Low speed limits like that, if they’re enforced, require divers monitor their speedometers and actually take their eye off the road quite frequently.

  10. Submitted by Adam Miller on 05/12/2020 - 09:27 am.

    I’ve been driving more during this pandemic (taking the kid to her grandma’s for child care rather having her come to our house), but it’s mostly on 66th Street and Lyndale Ave south of 66th Street in Richfield. Both are streets that have had recent traffic calming and my experience is that I have no trouble driving at or below the speed limit and others are mostly doing the same. My trips are also largely without stopping, thanks to the roundabouts.

    Good infrastructure actually works.

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