Driving in Minnesota has gotten so wild that irate strangers are reaching out to Pete Hosmer's driving school to complain.
"They're calling our office saying this car of yours is driving 'too slow' – so get off the road," said Hosmer, who owns A+ Driving School in White Bear Lake.
Beyond speeding, Hosmer said he has seen far more impatient, aggressive and dangerous driving — tailgating, drivers blowing through red lights — in the last couple of years than in any time in his 17 years as a driving instructor.
That speed has had deadly consequences across Minnesota. Speed-related traffic deaths last year surged 45%, pushing overall traffic deaths to a level not seen in the state since 2007.
Minnesota joins states across the country experiencing a massive rise in traffic fatalities despite better seatbelt usage and cars brimming with new safety technology. Motorists surveyed say they are speeding more than ever, at the same time many law enforcement agencies are scaling back or even eliminating speed enforcement as they shift diminished staffs to more pressing law enforcement work.
"Drivers are driving like crazy and it's literally killing people," said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit that represents state highway safety agencies across the country.
'A big change has been the lack of enforcement'
Back at the start of the pandemic lockdown in 2020, Col. Matt Langer and others at the State Patrol imagined a different trend emerging.
"We wondered if the fatal crash numbers were going to go way down, because we knew that the amount of driving that people were doing would go way down," Langer said.
Instead, traffic fatalities surged last year to 488 deaths, about a third higher than the average for the three years before the pandemic. Authorities attribute almost all of that increase to speeding.
There are signs that traffic fatalities are starting to taper and are down about 15% so far this year.
Traffic deaths attributed to speeding have fallen even more sharply. The state documented 68 speeding-related deaths between January and July 31, which is lower than the 99 deaths at this same point in 2021. That is still higher than pre-pandemic years.
Before the pandemic, traffic deaths in Minnesota were in steady decline, as car safety features improved and seat belt usage increased. In 2017, the state recorded the lowest number of traffic fatalities since 1944.
"Our vehicles have not gotten more unsafe," said Adkins, with the Governors Highway Safety Association. "So what has changed in the last couple years? A big change has been the lack of enforcement."
Traffic enforcement has been quietly declining for years, mainly due to staffing problems. Those shortages were exacerbated by the pandemic, a recent increase in violent crime and the murder of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer, according to numerous law enforcement officials.
Convictions for speeding offenses last year were down about 17% from the average number between 2017 and 2019, according to data from Minnesota district courts.
A deeper look at the data reveals a yawning gap between the State Patrol, whose primary role is traffic enforcement, and other agencies that have a lot of other duties. Convictions on citations handed out by the State Patrol were up 5% last year; all the others combined were down 36%.
State Patrol citations show a substantial increase in egregious speeding, which includes motorists traveling 25 mph or more over the limit or driving more than 100 miles per hour.
The patrol wrote more than 1,000 tickets to motorists traveling more than 100 mph in 2021, up from 900 the year before. The 2021 numbers are more than double what they were in 2019.
For most agencies, traffic enforcement has fallen as they pivoted to focus on other priorities, especially since most agencies are struggling to retain and recruit officers, said Brian Weierke, president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association and Fridley's police chief.
"The narrative out there is that people are realizing it's not as glamorous of a job as it used to be seen as," Weierke said. "Some of these high-profile incidents have scared off some people who would have been interested."
Edina Police, which has long been viewed as a heavy enforcer of traffic safety on the major highways running through the city, disbanded its traffic unit to free up resources in 2020 and 2021 to address violent crime and deter auto and catalytic converter thefts. As a result, speeding convictions from tickets handed out by the Edina Police dropped to 1,600 last year, from more than 7,500 in 2018.
"One of the big issues we're seeing is the increase in violent crime across the Twin Cities as a whole," said Dave Venne, patrol lieutenant for the Edina Police Department. "That's changing our patrol tactics."
In southeastern Minnesota, the Olmsted County Sheriff's Department did the opposite of Edina. In 2020, they saw cars routinely speeding, often topping 100 miles per hour on the near-empty highways outside of Rochester. In response, they created a traffic unit. Unlike most other agencies, they gave out more speeding citations that year than they had in previous years.
"We just said we're not going to stand for this," said Sheriff Kevin Torgerson.
Troy Greene, deputy chief for the St. Paul Police Department, said his officers are putting more attention on violent crime and street racing.
"For us, it's basic math," Greene said. "There are only so many resources to go around."
Langer said the State Patrol has been fortunate to retain its strong staffing level. Last year, the state Legislature authorized funding for an additional 60 positions, a 10% increase in the agency's workforce. But filling those new jobs has been difficult, Langer said.
Adkins said reduced traffic enforcement is a nationwide problem, and staffing shortages are not the only cause. During the early part of the pandemic there were concerns about officer health. He also said officers might be reluctant to make traffic stops "due to increased scrutiny amid a national conversation about the role of police in community safety."
Tierney Peters, community relations coordinator for the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, said in an email response to the Star Tribune's questions that "deputies have had more discretion" to provide a warning to a driver, instead of a citation, in an effort to "repair the relationships between law enforcement and our communities."
Efforts at deterrence
Langer and others said enforcement is crucial to reduce speeding and traffic fatalities.
"If people don't see the enforcement happening, then the deterrent effect doesn't work," Langer said.
In a 2021 survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, about 45% of respondents said they would exceed a 55 mph speed limit "most of the time" or at least "half the time." This was higher, at about 53%, for young, unmarried men, the group that is most often caught speeding.
The survey also asked if they had "read, seen or heard anything about speed enforcement by police," in the previous six months. The answer to that question had been declining in recent years, from about 64% in 2017 to a low of 47% in 2020. But last year, it crept back up to about 56%.
In July, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held a campaign kickoff event solely dedicated to reducing and preventing speeding on the roads, a first of its kind for the federal agency.
"Everybody's in a hurry, and I think it's more so now than before," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, who heads Minnesotans for Safe Driving and has been involved with the safe driving advocacy group for nearly 50 years. "Why do they want to take the chance of not only hurting themselves, but hurting someone else?"