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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”