The summer travel season is nearing its end, and as troopers and officers continue a statewide crackdown on drunken driving, Minnesota remains on track for a dramatic decline in road deaths in 2011.
The state Department of Public Safety reported 208 fatalities on state roads as of Friday, down from 253 at the same time a year ago.
Minnesota has been on pace for a decline since before Memorial Day weekend. But the summer months, traditionally the deadliest of the year, have seen a sharp reduction of their own -- from 142 deaths a year ago to 99 as of Friday. Memorial Day weekend passed without a fatality for the first time in at least 36 years.
State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske said the declines in deaths year to date and during the summer are a sign that "we are making progress. But that is still a large number of people killed in crashes."
Among factors aiding the reduction, he said, are changing attitudes about people driving drunk and without seat belts buckled, improvements to vehicles and roads, and enhanced emergency responses.
In 2010, Minnesota had 131 alcohol-related traffic deaths, the fewest since it began tracking the statistic in 1984, Department of Public Safety spokesman Nathan Bowie said.
The state recently joined a national "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over" campaign to run through Labor Day weekend. In its first weekend, Aug. 19-21, at least 232 people were arrested in Minnesota on suspicion of drunken driving.
This year, statewide fatalities hit the 200 mark in August, about a month later than in 2009 and 2010, when deaths at year's end reached 421 and 411, respectively, the lowest annual totals since 1944. For 2011, public safety officials now project 362 fatalities, down from the 375 estimated in May. Motorcycling deaths, however, have risen slightly, mid-August numbers show.
Bowie said a goal of the state's "Toward Zero Deaths" initiative is to see traffic deaths drop below 350 by 2014.
One tip is key. This month, in the southwest corner of the state, an SUV driven by a woman traveling with six children went into a ditch and rolled. One child died and three were critically hurt. Two children and the driver were treated and released. One group wore seat belts; the other did not.
"That tells the whole story," Roeske said. "Wearing a seat belt is the number one thing you can do to protect yourself in the event of a crash."
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109