A 14-year-old effort to reduce roadway deaths in Minnesota has spared an untold number of lives, but the people who implement it are still often told the goal of Toward Zero Deaths is unrealistic.

"That's one of the criticisms: 'It seems like an awful lofty goal,'" said Victor Lund, a traffic engineer with St. Louis County. "My statement to that is always, 'How many people in your family are acceptable to be a traffic fatality?' "

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Since beginning on a pilot basis in southeastern Minnesota in 2003, the Toward Zero Deaths initiative has spread throughout the state and resulted in about 175 fewer fatalities annually compared to the previous decade, when the state averaged 610 roadway deaths per year.

The recent five-year average of 389 deaths per year on Minnesota roadways represents a roughly 40 percent reduction in fatalities from the time before the advent of TZD. But faced with plateauing figures, sources say the hard work for the multiple agencies involved in the effort is just beginning.

Even as the number of seat-belt users nears saturation, at 93 percent, and drunken-driving arrests diminish, drug-impaired drivers are on the rise, and distracted driving is presenting a new frontier of challenges for law enforcement and the others who have made it their mission to alter drivers' most destructive behaviors.

"We were so aggressive at first that we got the low-hanging fruit," said Holly Kostrzewski, TZD coordinator for northern Minnesota. "It's a lot harder now."

Holly Kostrzewski
Holly Kostrzewski
 Based in Duluth, Kostrzewski oversees TZD implementation for 19 counties covering more than 40,000 square miles. She's so familiar with the east-west thoroughfare of U.S. Highway 2 that she can tell when collective speeds are up and will inform State Patrol troopers of her observations. Like a lot of the sources for this story, her commitment to TZD is fierce, and her pursuit of the idyllic zero deaths is serious business.

"Somehow in our society, it's become socially acceptable that motor vehicle crashes happen," she said. "But it's not. It's not OK for people to die (that way)."

As with most any campaign, TZD operates with core values defined using the sheen of marketing. It employs what it calls "the five Es" - education, enforcement, engineering, emergency response and, finally, everyone. The first four Es feature members of three state agencies - the Minnesota departments of health, public safety and transportation - working together to educate drivers, make roadways safer and enforce the laws. All of it is done in the name of penetrating drivers' psyches in order to create safer actions and habits from people behind the wheel.

"The reality is just about all of these crashes - except for a few mechanical failures or the tree falling or deer that runs out and hits a motorcyclist - are preventable," said Lt. Jason Engeldinger, who covers the Iron Range for the Minnesota State Patrol.

Sources say success to date is a credit to the interdisciplinary nature of the effort. TZD was modeled after the Swedish "Vision Zero," and was launched in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, when agencies began to understand the value of de-siloing their knowledge and working together. The start of TZD was notable, Kostrzewski said, for it not being a governor's initiative. Instead, it was the three state agencies coming together to say enough was enough.

Bent on reducing what had been escalating death totals, teams of people from law enforcement, trauma centers, engineering offices, even snow plow drivers and more began meeting to review every fatality following a particular case's closure. The practice is still intact, and yields everything from road projects, such as the addition of chevrons around dangerous curves, to better routes for emergency response crews trying to beat "the golden hour" principle that says a person's likelihood of survival is greater if they reach trauma care promptly.

TZD gets by on relatively little funding compared to, say, the commercial development of self-driving cars - state grants issued in thousands of dollars versus the tens of millions spent on new automobile development.

Lt. Chad Nagorski of the Duluth Police Department oversees a $280,000 grant for the enforcement agencies in St. Louis County.

"The vast majority of funding is for overtime shifts for work during traffic enforcement," Nagorski said. "The vast majority of that is for DWI enforcement - 80-85 percent - with smaller percentages for distracted driving, some for seat belts and some for speed enforcement."

Enforcement efforts that used to be clandestine are now telegraphed under TZD, which uses radio and other information campaigns to let drivers know when there will be extra-enforcement efforts. A public service announcement of an increased enforcement effort serves as a behavior changer, sources said. A law enforcement officer will make between 12 and 20 stops during an eight-hour enforcement shift, Nagorski explained, and people who are not in compliance with a given law will be ticketed or apprehended.

"The public service announcement is your warning," Nagorski said.

In addition to countless measures of TZD influence - from Monday Messaging campaigns on electronic signboards ("Kiss Me I'm Sober") to the increasing implementation of roundabouts - there is the mountain of data collected in service to TZD.

Among some notable statistics and trends that sources said are used by the local TZD advocates:

• The most common fatal crash, at 52 percent, in St. Louis County is the single-vehicle impaired driver whose vehicle runs off the road.

• No. 2 is the T-bone crash at an intersection, and No. 3 the head-on crash resulting from a driver drifting across the center line.

• The biggest risk of a crash within city limits of Duluth, Proctor and Hermantown is at a traffic signal. "The reality is," said Lund of traffic signals, "they're not the gold standard."

• Adding lighting to rural stop-sign intersections helps decrease crashes.

• Bar participation in the Twin Ports Joyride program, which offers sober cab rides at reduced rates, has increased from six bars at its start to more than 30.

• Despite a particularly deadly May, deaths through that month are down statewide this year from the same period in 2016, 122 compared to 130 in 2016.

• Children learn future driving habits from their parents as soon as the age of 2.

• Men in pickup trucks are the most likely people to not wear a seat belt. The average male needs 2½ seat-belt infraction tickets before altering his behavior.

• A person's likelihood of dying in a vehicle crash decreases after the age of 25.

• The term "car accident" is not used by TZD advocates, who point out that 93 percent of crashes are the result of negligent human behavior and thus no accident at all.

• Rumble strips cost $0.10 per foot to create and, while they tend to irritate nearby homeowners, save lives for the way the noise and vibration can jerk a drifting driver into attention.

• The warmest months are the worst for fatalities. Drivers concentrate harder on their cold-weather driving, sources said, while sunny weather creates of itself an almost carefree narcotic.

Distracted driving, most commonly associated with the use of cellphones while driving, is a whole new beast. Despite the state recently doubling the fine for a second distracted driving offense, TZD leaders want more.

"We need our laws to change, too," said Allison Nicolson, injury prevention coordinator for Essentia Health and an advocate for the type of strident hands-free law that 14 states have and the Minnesota legislature began to address but didn't pass in 2017. Nicolson helps coordinate the mock crashes that are used to educate local high schoolers about the perils of poor driving behavior. She and other sources said distracted driving is to the younger set what drunken driving was to older generations. But current figures for crashes related to distracted driving are so hit-and-miss as to be inaccurate, Kostrzewski said.

"We know they're low and not even true," she said.

To that end, authorities have reformatted their data collection systems to better identify distraction. It will be five years before the numbers are solid, since TZD data analysis is based on five-year trends.

Until then, TZD will continue to move toward its idyllic end goal.

"I think it's a fascinating idea about collaboration around a shared ethic that has such a great and positive impact," said 6th Judicial District Judge Shaun Floerke of Duluth, whose South St. Louis County DWI Court is yet another partner in what is a vast TZD network. "There's always going to be ice and storms, but we can take out the decision-making and behavior-related stuff. We've sure seen some great progress."