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State targets drunken driving

ST. PAUL -- Alcohol-related traffic deaths occur on lonely two-lane rural roads and busy urban freeways, and law enforcement officers plan a December-long crackdown to reduce those fatalities.

ST. PAUL -- Alcohol-related traffic deaths occur on lonely two-lane rural roads and busy urban freeways, and law enforcement officers plan a December-long crackdown to reduce those fatalities.

"Impaired drivers are going to be seeing a lot of red flashing lights in their rearview mirrors," said Kathy Swanson, director of the Office of Traffic Safety within the Public Safety Department.

On Thursday, state officials announced the 13 deadliest counties in the state for alcohol-related wrecks -- including St. Louis and Itasca counties in Northeastern Minnesota.

At the same time, Lt. Mark Peterson of the Minnesota State Patrol announced that state and local law enforcement agencies -- and not only in those counties with the deadliest records -- will increase patrols this month to catch drinkers who should not be driving. More than 400 law enforcement agencies will be involved, although Peterson would not say how many officers will be added.

The 13 counties with the most alcohol-related traffic fatalities will see increased patrols throughout 2007, Peterson added.

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The deadliest counties include those surrounding the Twin Cities, but also mostly rural ones. Three of them -- Kandiyohi, Cass and Olmsted -- were on the top-13 list last year, but their alcohol-related fatalities dropped enough to missthe list this year. Theywere replaced by three other mostly rural counties -- Blue Earth, Crow Wingand Itasca.

More than half of the state's alcohol-related traffic deaths occur in the 13 counties, Swanson said. Nearly 300 of the state's 1,079 alcohol-related traffic deaths from 2003 through 2005 occurred in the 13 counties. Alcohol-related accidents cost more than $356 million in those counties, out of more than $1 billion statewide.

St. Louis and Itasca counties accounted for 42 of the fatalities in the three-year period. St. Louis reported the third-most deaths, only three behind Ramsey, the state's second-most populous county.

St. Louis County also recorded 36 injuries in what state officials call severe alcohol-related crashes. Overall costs for the St. Louis wrecks topped $32 million.

Swanson said she doesn't know why the 13 counties are the deadliest, but busy roads in the cities and small, two-lane roads in rural areas contribute. Overall, two-thirds of the state's facilities occur on rural roads.

"There is not as much room for a mistake" on rural roads, Swanson said.

There is good traffic news, too. Minnesota is on track to have the lowest traffic death count since World War II, when about 530 people died in wrecks each year.

Minnesota is about 50 below last year's death toll at this time. In 2005, 559 people died on the state's roads, with 197 dying in alcohol-related wrecks.

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In Itasca County, five people were hurt in serious wrecks linked to alcohol. Alcohol-related accident costs totaled nearly $17.5 million.

State officials said 4,412 people were charged with drunken driving in St. Louis County from 2003 through 2005, while 1,053 were charged in Itasca County.

In Washington County, 19 alcohol-related traffic deaths were recorded 2003 to 2005, state officials said. Another 24 were hurt and alcohol-related accidents in the county cost $22.4 million.

In those three years, 4,097 people were charged with driving drunk in the county.

In Dakota County, 18 alcohol-related traffic deaths were recorded 2003 to 2005, state officials said. Another 37 were hurt and alcohol-related accidents in the country cost $22.2 million.

In those three years, 7,608 people were charged with driving drunk in the county.

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