MN Roads: Expansion, Improvement, Dead People

People driving cars and trucks killed about 400 people in Minnesota last year. That means a child in Minnesota is about 21 times more likely to be killed by someone driving a car as they are to be abducted by a stranger. What’s being done about this at the capital in Saint Paul?

Expansion, Improvement, Dead People

Every year Minnesota embarks on a number of road expansion projects. Big ones like adding lanes to 35E, 694, and other highways. And smaller ones like adding turn lanes on Lexington Avenue in Shoreview (and making crossing on foot or bike more dangerous).

Construction on Interstate 694 in Shoreview to add additional lanes. Prior to construction this segment would get slightly congested for about 10-15 minutes each evening.

And then there are a variety of road projects that aren’t directly expansion but are focused on ‘improving’ a road, though rarely do these include any substantive improvement in safety, only improvements in vehicle speeds and throughput.

Why are we expanding roads when we have such a problem with the people who use them killing other people? In a logical world if something proves exceptionally deadly, and over 400 dead people per year would seem to qualify, the first priority would be to figure out why it’s deadly, fix it, and only then build more.

If any other product, from a car to a furnace that leaked CO to a roller coaster, resulted in 4 deaths per year there would be headlines and gnashing of teeth and lawsuits and recalls and people fired. So what are we doing about 400 dead people?

Here’s a thought. No road expansion projects, no new roads or added lanes, until traffic engineers reduce the number of people killed on the roads they design to some reasonable number.

A Reasonable Number of Fatalities

“Until traffic engineers reduce the number of people killed on the roads they design to some reasonable number.“

What is a reasonable number of deaths?  How many people can be killed and we call it reasonable?

There’s a lot of talk about Vision Zero. Zero deaths would be great but that is rather unrealistic until every vehicle is fully autonomous and even then its questionable with our current road designs. Engineers know it’s unreasonable so why even try? A reasonable number has to be attainable. A good reasonable number is one that has already been attained and proven by others.

Here are the annual traffic deaths for a number of countries.

road deaths per capita

Traffic Deaths Per Capita including Minnesota. 24 of the 35 OECD countries are better than the average of 51. 7 of these are shown above. The U.S. has the highest road fatality rate in the OECD and also has the greatest impact on the average being so high. Without the U.S. the average is about 43. Note that while the U.S. has a low number of bicycle rider deaths that is because we have a comparatively very low number of bicycle riders. A bicycle rider in the U.S. is actually about 9 times as likely to be killed per mile ridden as one in The Netherlands. I’d guess it’s similar for pedestrians.

We are one of the best in the U.S. but one of the worst in the world and we’re particularly worst for how many people walking or riding bicycles we allow to be killed every year. Riding a bicycle is 9 times as dangerous here as in The Netherlands. Is walking similarly as dangerous?

More: Bicycling: Relatively Safe.

Given what others have attained, what then is a reasonable target for Minnesota to aim for?

Less than 30 deaths per million people is attainable, and five countries are there. The average for ALL developed countries (OECD) is 51. Average would certainly seem doable.

The rate of fatalities is caused by engineering design. Good design causes safer driving and fewer fatalities while bad design produces the results we’ve seen in Minnesota and the U.S. In a logical world if a bit of design causes deaths it’d be changed. Multi-lane crossings would always have stop lights and no turn on red, roads with speeds over 30 MPH would always have physical protection to keep drivers from hitting and killing bicycle riders and pedestrians.

Are Minnesota traffic engineers capable of achieving the under 30 deaths of the safest countries? That seems like a huge leap when we are so far below average.

My proposal for a reasonable number then is the OECD average of 51 fatalities per million people. That should be achievable. And then three years after attaining that the target increases to 90% of the OECD average, which today would be 46 fatalities per million people or 248 people killed on Minnesota roads.

And yes I just suggested that killing 248 innocent people is reasonable. Think about that for a moment.

Three years after attaining 90% we increase the target to 75% which with today’s average would still be 206 dead Minnesotans each year. That is probably all we can reasonably expect. Is it reasonable to expect that our traffic engineers can design roads that result in only 206 people killed each year? Better than average but still worse than the safer countries.

If we attain 75% of the OECD average, and that is very doable, then deaths will likely be a bit lower as most countries in the OECD are reducing their fatality rates (much faster than engineers in the U.S. are) and so reducing the OECD average.

MNDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle is overseeing what is perhaps the worst road safety decline in Minnesota since the 1970’s and possibly the worst since the 1960’s. Will we continue to build more of our deadly roads or figure out how not to kill 400 or more people on them every year?


[box type=”note”]Why Per Capita Instead Of Per Mile Travelled? What we ultimately care about is how many people are killed. Per Capita, the percentage of our population who are killed each year, is most representative of this for comparison purposes. It also allows a fuller range of solutions for attaining it. For instance, traffic engineers can enlist planners in reducing how much we have to drive and transit in transporting more people by train or bus. They may determine that a little congestion is a good thing when safety is a priority or that encouraging people to walk and ride bicycles instead of driving is a real safety improvement.[/box]

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN