Tom West, West Words

Tom West

If you’ve ever watched the movie “Hoosiers,” starring Gene Hackman as an Indiana high school basketball coach in the 1950s, you may recall that he drove around in a 1951 Chevy. The movie came to mind because the vehicle had a knob on the steering wheel. In the 1950s, most cars did not have power steering, so some drivers added the knob for more torque.

That knob was also good for breaking ribs and fracturing skulls if vehicles were involved in accidents. Few vehicles had seat belts then, which also increased the likelihood of car crash participants shattering windshields with their faces.

All of that is a reminder of how far we have come in terms of auto safety. Last week, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) released its annual “Crash Facts” report that compiles the details of traffic accidents in Minnesota in 2018. It should remind everyone of how far we still have to go.

The report always has a few surprises. For example, the 381 fatalities in 2018 was a 6 percent increase over 2017, but the number of accidents per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), 0.06, was the lowest since the state began tracking VMT in 1962.

That’s no reason to feel safe. From the inconvenience of having to get one’s vehicle repaired to the anguish and heartbreak that comes with unexpectedly losing a loved one, these crashes take a toll on all of us. Their economic cost topped $1.8 billion last year. Is there an adult Minnesotan anywhere who has not been affected by either being directly involved in an accident or having a friend or family member injured or killed on our streets and highways?

Of note, however, is that the state now refers to this mayhem in terms of “crashes” instead of “accidents.” Why? Because the DPS believes these events are both predictable and preventable. An “accident” is a chance occurrence beyond anyone’s control. Most “crashes” are not.

Minnesota’s roads were most dangerous in the 1960s and 1970s when the Baby Boomers were just learning to drive. The most traffic fatalities in one year occurred in 1968, when 1,060 people died. The most fatal crashes, 878, happened in 1973. The most total crashes, 123,106, occurred in 1975. The most crash injuries occurred in 1978 when 33,686 were hurt.

In 1971, 157 pedestrians were killed. In 1980, 121 motorcyclists died. In 1977, 24 bicyclists left this vale of tears.

The record for deaths on ATVs is 11 set in 2017. Nine died in commercial bus accidents in 1984. And the record for deaths involving farm equipment is five in 2013.

In 2018, by comparison, 79,215 crashes occurred, and 27,877 people were possibly injured. Of those individuals, 1,660 were seriously hurt, 9,429 had minor injuries, and the remainder were listed as having possible injuries.

Among last year’s traffic fatalities were 58 motorcyclists, 45 pedestrians, nine ATVers, seven bicyclists, one on a commercial bus and none involved farm equipment.

In addition, the roads are more dangerous in rural areas. Of the 378 deaths, 203 occurred in jurisdictions with less than 2,500 inhabitants.

If it seems like Minnesota’s roads are more congested, it may be because the number of vehicle registrations, which now stands at 7.3 million, has gone up 265,299 in the past five years.

Motor vehicle registrations have risen 212,962 overall. Within that subcategory, the largest increase has been an additional 227,173 pickups. Other types of vehicles that have increased are passenger vehicles, up 26,946; commercial trucks, up 21,173; tax-exempt vehicles (e.g. police cars), up 3,702; school buses, up 717 and other buses, up 195. Types of vehicles showing reductions are motorcycles, down 12,060; motorized bicycles, down 2,115; RVs, down 2,008; and pool vans, down 19.

In addition, trailer registrations have dropped 86,525. However, classic motor vehicle registrations are up 31,805 and classic motorcycles have increased 3,383, all in just the last five years.

A few other nuggets from the report:

• September and October are the most dangerous months for fatalities. Be careful this fall;

• Senior citizens’ chances of accidents are highest in the five-year span from ages 65-69, and decline for each five-year period after that, including for those over age 85. Most likely, this is because older seniors retain their driver’s license for identification purposes even though they have stopped driving;

• Senior citizens also have their fewest accidents here in February through April, most likely because so many of them are spending those months in Florida, Texas or Arizona;

• Teen drivers have a greater percentage of accidents than their percent of the population, but that applies to every age cohort up to age 45;

• While many fatal accident reports do not show if an airbag deployed, if one does deploy, you are 23 times more likely to be killed if you aren’t wearing your seatbelt than if you are. Seat belt compliance is now at 92 percent statewide; and

• Fewer people are drinking alcohol and then driving. In the 1960s, most traffic fatalities were alcohol-related. Today, about 32 percent are. Drunken drivers are the ones most likely to be killed if they have an accident. Last year, 96 of the 123 killed in alcohol-related crashes were drivers.

It’s a dangerous world; stay safe out there.

Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at

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