Vehicle accidents by month in Morrison County

A graphic provided by the Morrison County Safe Roads Coalition shows the number of crashes in the county each month during 2020. Sarah Pratt with Morrison County Public Health said the pandemic brought on an increase in speed-related traffic incidents.

The Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) Grant Program focuses on outreach and education to promote road safety in Morrison County and throughout Minnesota.

Crash data both locally and statewide show an increase in serious injuries and deaths on the road during the past year. According to the Morrison County Safe Roads Coalition, which is funded through the TZD grant, there were 286 total crashes in Morrison County between March 2020 and June 2021. Of those, 78 resulted in injuries — 13 of which were considered serious. There were also six fatal crashes, resulting in seven deaths.

Morrison County Public Health Human Services Supervisor Sarah Pratt said that compared to 329 total accidents between 2018 and 2019. There were also fewer serious injuries, nine, along with seven fatalities in 2019.

“We utilize crash data to drive our work,” Pratt said. “You know, where should our outreach be? Where should our education be? And we coordinate with the enforcement grant in the Sheriff’s (Office).”

Of the 286 total crashes between March 2020 and June 2021, 108 were in the Little Falls area, with 30 in or near both Royalton and Pierz. There were also 20 near Motley and 19 in the area of Camp Ripley. Two of the serious injuries and two of the fatalities were alcohol-related.

“It shows, clearly, that crashes do not just exist in the city of Little Falls,” said Morrison County Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski. “Looking at your statistical stuff here, crashes happen — and can happen — anywhere.”

Pratt said the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in that increase. That is evident when looking at Morrison County crashes in 2020. In January and February last year, there were only 17 and eight accidents, respectively. March 2020 brought on a jump to 39 wrecks. That was followed by 24 in April, 32 in May, 34 in June and 24 in July.

A rise in speed-related crashes is something Pratt said has gone hand-in-hand with the pandemic.

“We saw a pandemic, which for some reason has — there seems to be some correlation to, people are speeding more,” Pratt said. “I don’t know if that’s less people on the roads; it seems like higher speeds occurred during the pandemic time.”

Distracted driving — which includes cellphone use, eating, messing with the radio and more — impaired driving from drugs or alcohol and not using a seat belt have also been factors in several local incidents, she said.

“Despite all the education that we do around seat belts and the laws around seat belts, it’s still very common in Morrison County, for fatal and serious injury crashes, that people aren’t wearing seat belts,” Pratt said.

She said the reallocation of resources such as law enforcement officers in response to civil unrest may have also played a factor. The pandemic and needing extra officers in select areas also put a pause on community outreach that normally takes place through the Toward Zero Death program.

The numbers in Morrison County are indicative of what is happening statewide, too. As of July 3, there had been 202 fatalities on Minnesota roads since Jan. 1. That compares to 148 in the same timeframe in 2020. Eighty of those crashes in 2021 were speed-related, compared to 49 the previous year.

“Exactly halfway through 2021, and I’m at a loss for words,” said Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety Director Mike Hanson, in a statement provided by Pratt. “What is it going to take for drivers to understand the importance of driving smart? Two hundred traffic fatalities by July 1 is just unacceptable. You’re at much greater risk of planning a funeral now than in the past because of what’s happening on our roads. We all need to drive smart to help protect each other while out on the roads.”

In order to fulfill its mission of promoting safety on the roads in Minnesota, the Morrison County Safe Roads Coalition engages in the “Five Es.” Those are: education, enforcement, engineering, EMS and everyone else.

Tuesday, the County Board approved a resolution to apply for TZD grant funding again in 2022. Public Health Educator Emily Loomis said the coalition sets different goals each year.

One goal for 2021 was to reduce fatalities and serious injuries tied to alcohol or unbelted passengers. She said how many of the incidents this year have included those factors will come out when the Fatal Review Coalition does its fatal review within the next couple of months.

Another goal was to partner with three EMS teams across the county. The pandemic put a hamper on that, as many were not holding community events and fundraisers in which they’re normally engaged. Many, Loomis said, didn’t even hold in-person events.

“They’re starting to now,” she said. “So that’s something we want to continue in the future. It gets our name of our coalition out there and brings awareness to traffic safety.”

The coalition also had a goal to engage with five businesses that were not located in Little Falls. Many of the businesses it already partners with are based in Little Falls, so the idea was to branch out into surrounding communities within Morrison County. Loomis said, thus far, that has gone well.

In meeting this goal, she said the coalition works with businesses to share messages that are unified across the county. There are specific topics it wants to highlight each month, so that messaging centers around those issues.

“So, whether it’s distracted driving, or alcohol, so find a sober ride, those kinds of things, everyone across Morrison County is sharing that same message at the same time,” Loomis said. “So you’re kind of seeing it everywhere. You don’t have to drive by a specific sign at the right time to see that message.”

The final goal was to build on current partnerships within the public safety community. That includes EMS, law enforcement, fire departments and more, as they help provide valuable information to the coalition.

“After fatal and serious injury crashes happen, we discuss as a group what were the factors, those kinds of things,” Loomis said. “It does directly tie into what the first responders are seeing.”

Loomis said the coalition also focuses on motorcycle safety and training for both riders and vehicle drivers. It also recently started working on pedestrian safety. The plan with that is to go into the schools and give presentations on how to be a safe pedestrian for younger children, and how to be a safe driver around walkers and bicyclists for older kids who are of driving age.

The coalition also conducts responsible beverage server training for local bars and restaurants.

It also plans to have a booth at the Morrison County Fair for more outreach. Loomis said they plan to bring distraction and impairment goggles to give community members a simulation of what it’s like to drive while distracted or impaired. A “seat belt convincer” that simulates a low-speed crash and a “crash car” are also potential items for people to check out at their booth.

“We want to continue to build on what our whole mission is already doing,” Loomis said. “We have really great passions. ... We want to continue to increase that community awareness of who we are as a coalition, what traffic safety means, specifically in Morrison County, and then finding even more local champions around the county to find those passion projects.”

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