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An odd way to promote safety on the roads

When it comes to highway safety, Minnesota’s policy shortcomings are costly — and this state isn’t alone.

A few basic countermeasures could greatly improve safety on Minnesota roads.
Courtesy of MnDOT

Since 2000, the federal government has poured $119.5 million into Minnesota traffic safety programs to combat the death and injury tolls of drunken driving, the state’s cost of which the National Safety Council estimated at $262 million in 2011 alone.

Conrad deFiebre
Conrad deFiebre

The federal funding — spent on eliminating hazards, improving roadway safety, DWI enforcement, technology measures and public education — isn’t exactly a gift to Minnesota, though. It’s a penalty for lax state drunken driving rules that don’t meet standards set by Congress. Otherwise, all of the money would go to regular road and bridge construction and maintenance.

This is nothing new for libertarian-leaning Minnesota, which said no thanks to millions in federal bonus highway funds before it became the last state in the union to adopt the national standard of 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content for drunken driving. Now our policy shortcomings are less glaring, but still costly. This year’s hit is $13.8 million.

Minnesota isn’t alone in this boat. Two-thirds of the states face similar restrictions, including neighboring South Dakota and Iowa, which recently came under federal review and stand to have a total of $22.5 million redirected this year. So far, North Dakota and beer-loving Wisconsin have avoided the federal sanctions.

Three ways Minnesota falls short

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, our state laws fall short in three areas:

  • Mandatory sentences for repeat drunken drivers. Federal law prescribes at least five days in jail and 30 days of community service for second offenders, 10 days in jail and 60 days of community service for three-time-and-more losers; Minnesota doesn’t.
  • Chemical health assessments. The feds require them following DWI convictions; Minnesota doesn’t.
  • Ignition interlocks. Minnesota requires DWI offenders to drive only a vehicle with such a system to prevent drunken driving. But they may still own other cars that are not equipped with ignition interlock. That’s a no-no in federal law, which says all vehicles owned or operated by the offender must be interlocked.
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Displaying wisdom similar to their dawdling over 0.08, our elected leaders have let these weak laws and their fiscal penalties persist for 14 years. After all, according to DPS, the fund transfers amount to just 2.5 percent of the state’s federal highway money over that period. And half of it goes to the state Department of Transportation anyway for roadway improvements like cable median barriers, rumble strips, better curve warning signs and intersection lighting. DPS spends the other half on things like enhanced enforcement and anti-DWI media campaigns.

Has this worked to cure the plague of drunken driving? Not particularly.

In 2000, Minnesota racked up 245 confirmed alcohol-related deaths, 39 percent of the total. In 2011 (last year’s numbers aren’t in yet), it was 37 percent, although all traffic fatalities that year reached a six-decade low of 368, barely half the 2000 toll. Maybe the transfer-funded MnDOT safety improvements are saving more lives than just those of tipplers.

We could save more lives yet across America if the states got more serious about speeding, drunken driving and seat belt use, a new study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute suggests.

U.S. compares unfavorably

Researchers Juha Luoma and Michael Sivak compared U.S. traffic fatality rates with the European champions in this arena, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. They found that Americans are three times more likely to die in a roadway crash than citizens of those countries. They recommended that U.S. states lower the BAC threshold for drunken driving to a Euro-style 0.05 percent; cut speed limits, especially in urban areas and for heavy trucks; step up enforcement with speed cameras, and get tougher to require all vehicle occupants to buckle up.

“The countermeasures … would lead to only limited restrictions on driver behavior or privacy, but would likely result in substantial benefits in terms of human life saved, suffering avoided and expenses avoided,” the researchers said.

They offered one additional idea that makes sense not just for safety, but for quality of life and economic efficiency, too: Find ways to put in fewer miles behind the wheel.

Americans drive more

Much of the difference in population-based traffic death rates between our country and those across the Atlantic, the researchers found, stems from much more driving stateside. On average, each U.S. driver is on the road nearly twice as much as a European. In short, we drive faster, drunker, less protected and upwards of 4,000 miles more a year.

On the last point, Luoma and Sivak urged, “Consider new strategies to reduce distances driven (e.g., urban planning, encouragement of people to use more public transportation, telecommuting, etc.).”

Despite recently falling death tolls, each year traffic crashes still kill more than 33,000 Americans, including hundreds of Minnesotans. Slightly fewer than that die from gunfire. Unfortunately, effective policy responses to both these ongoing massacres remain far beyond our reach.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This commentary originally appeared on itswebsite.

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