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Traffic deaths in Minneapolis fell for the third straight year in 2023, but they're still well above pre-pandemic levels, according to newly released city data.

The number of crashes has fallen significantly, though, as have the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists struck, so what's the reason for the increased deaths?

Speeding, officials suspect.

By the numbers

In 2023, 21 people died in crashes on Minneapolis streets, including pedestrians, cyclists, bikers and drivers. That figure doesn't include collisions on freeways or those involving intentional crashes or medical emergencies.

In 2022, there were 22 fatalities and 23 in 2021. But those totals were notably higher than the three years before the COVID-19 pandemic, when annual traffic fatality totals ranged from nine to 14.

The data was presented to a City Council committee Thursday as an annual update to Minneapolis' Vision Zero program. The initiative has sought to reduce traffic deaths by tracking data and installing hundreds of curbs, humps, plastic barriers and other methods to separate vehicles from less-protected travelers and force vehicles to slow down, especially in areas known to have frequent, serious crashes.

More than numbers

Reading the names of all 23 people killed last year, Vision Zero program coordinator Ethan Fawley choked up.

"These are totally unacceptable, and we have to do better as a city," he said.

Among them were lives lost in two tragedies on Lake Street, which Fawley said was the "highest-injury street in the state."

In June, five young women who had just left Karmel Mall after having henna applied for a friend's wedding were killed when a driver ran a red light at 95 mph and struck their car. Sabiriin Ali, 17; Sahra Gesaade, 20; Salma Abdikadir, 20; Sagal Hersi, 19; and Siham Adam, 19, were killed. Derrick John Thompson, then 27, was charged with 10 counts of criminal vehicular homicide. His case is pending.

In October, Annalee Wright was killed while crossing the street with her two children, ages 14 and 6. She pushed them out of the way of a car driven by a 23-year-old man with a learner's permit, police said. The children survived. The next day, Wright received her Ojibwe spirit name, Biiwaabik Ikwe, or Iron Woman.

Caused by speeding?

Cautioning that every crash is unique, Fawley said it's difficult to say for certain what's behind the higher level of deaths since the pandemic. But speeding seems like a prime suspect — especially because the total number of crashes has fallen notably.

When 2023 is compared with the 2016-2019 average, the number of total collisions has fallen 48%, and the number of crashes involving bicycles and pedestrians is down 35%. Yet, the number of severe crashes has risen 13% during that same period.

In the past three years, the percentage of fatal crashes that "clearly involved speeding" has remained above 50%, while the highest that rate reached before 2020 was 43%.

The data tracks with statewide and national trends that showed roads in Minnesota and the rest of the U.S. became more deadly during the pandemic, as motorists drove faster and were thought to have become more reckless. Fatality rates continue to fall, but transportation officials have been frustrated that they remain above pre-pandemic levels.

When City Council members asked Fawley if new traffic obstructions — especially plastic posts called "bollards" that are seen by many as unsightly — are working, he said the city needs more time to generate several years of data to be able to answer that.

Nonetheless, his office supports using them because anecdotally they appear to help, and they're far less expensive than more permanent changes to streets.