Are Minnesota Drivers Really as Good as They Say?

If you saw this sign, would you see it?

Last summer, I witnessed a pedestrian being struck by a vehicle. I knew it was going to happen, but there was nothing I could do as it all happened in an instant. The driver immediately jumped out of his car and started yelling that he wasn’t on his cell phone. He repeated this over and over.

The driver wasn’t on his cell phone, but I did know (as the sole witness) that he was looking away, distracted nonetheless. Cops were called, the pedestrian was taken away by ambulance, there were a few mentions on the local news, and that was all; the rest of the story sort of faded away. Sadly, this is just one of the many distracted driving accidents in Minnesota.

I’ve had friends riding bicycle struck by cars and relatives involved in a few fender benders all because of distracted drivers. While all of these preventable accidents are taking place in Minnesota (all over the state), they are no different throughout the U.S.

The conversations are the same, as are the frustrations. Some lawmakers push for stricter laws while others think there’s too much enforcement. While Minnesota is considerably safer than other states, distracted driving continues to be one of the biggest problems on the road.

Are We Really As Good of Drivers As “They” Say?

This spring, Twin Cities drivers were ranked as some of the best in the country. Before we start patting ourselves on the back, every driver in Minnesota knows that we don’t always make the best choices, and I’m not just talking about braving the roads during a blizzard.

Maybe we Minnesotans truly are more polite and give fellow motorists a little more room when merging, but I’ve seen how drivers act behind the wheel.

Long before smartphones existed, I used to see drivers scarfing down Big Macs, changing clothes, applying makeup, and reading a book. I even saw one guy dribbling a basketball, all while keeping up with the speed limit on I-494. Now drivers are still doing all of these things but with a cell phone in their hand or tucked beneath an ear and a craned neck.

Even worse, commercial truck drivers who have been traveling from three states away are in a hurry to drop off their cargo, trying to navigate metro gridlock, and are talking on their cell phones or trying to find directions.

Minnesota’s Distracted Driving Laws

If it weren’t for some of our safety initiatives, Minnesota drivers wouldn’t be getting any accolades. Every driver has complained about some of the driving laws (particularly distracted driving laws) in Minnesota at one point or another. One friend complained to me about getting a distracted driving ticket while looking at his phone at a stop light.

While it may seem a bit excessive to some, it’s the law, and technically, you’re not paying attention to the vehicles around you or the traffic lights.

It’s estimated that one in four accidents, and at least 70 deaths, are due to distracted drivers. These accidents are still occurring despite the ban on texting and driving (MN has yet to ban all handheld devices). Was this law enacted and strongly enforced just to annoy and inconvenience you? No. Even though it may seem like it, the main goal is to reduce roadway deaths.

Remarkably, states like Rhode Island have been able to reduce roadway fatalities by about 30 percent due to some of their safety initiatives. Surely, we as “good Minnesota drivers,” can do the same.

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20 Responses to Are Minnesota Drivers Really as Good as They Say?

  1. Rich June 28, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    Thanks for this. On my commute this morning, driving on Como past the state fair grounds, I stopped for a young woman trying to cross at an unmarked intersection. She was clearly nervous about stepping off the curb and was waiting for oncoming traffic to also stop before committing. In stopping, I did what I always do – first checked my rear view mirror to make sure I wasn’t going to get hit, then positioned myself so as to block as much road as possible behind me. On this stretch of Como there is a bike lane and I chose not to block that, although there were no bikes in sight. Of course the first car to come up behind me proceeded to pass me on the right as though I was just randomly parked in the middle of the street.

    Until the state gets serious about fines and penalties for this kind of driving, we’re not going to make progress on this issue.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 28, 2017 at 9:30 pm #

    Thanks for writing this. It’s huge and I am very discouraged about changing the culture here or anywhere…

  3. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson June 28, 2017 at 10:59 pm #

    I’ve been in in Silicon Valley for six weeks now, I’ll be here until November, and I have never seen Minnesota drivers as observant of pedestrians or even merely acquiescing to pedestrians as the drivers are here. It’s a culture shock, I’m expecting standard Minnesotan aggressive cornering at all times. Even midblock crossing, if you pause near a crossing everyone has stopped for me. Never fails.

    In my opinion there must be some sort of statistical anomaly here where Minnesota isn’t measuring the exact same thing as what is happening in California, and somehow they are being conflated as the same thing. Unless there are parts of CA where pedestrian/driver interactions are much more dangerous than here in the South Bay Area that skew the results.

    Second observation about Minnesota, I believe we have a higher amount of urban highway miles per capita than most other cities. Most other North American cities aren’t as dense with freeways per square mile as the Twin Cities, roads where pedestrians are frankly nonexistent (except for protests). Drivers in Minnesota can get around a hell of a lot more without coming into potential conflict with pedestrians or stoplights than nearly any other major city. THAT counts for something in the skewing the reality of “safe” driving. Freeway driving is much safer than stroad arterial driving laden with stoplights.

    • Rosa June 29, 2017 at 12:53 am #

      I’m guessing suburban and rural California are different for pedestrians than the dense parts of the Bay, and have way more people (driving and walking) than suburban and rural Minnesota.

      But I was so crazy impressed in Oakland, which has wide flat streets and highway overpasses, not narrow hilly city streets like SF, at how cars stopped for pedestrians and pedestrians don’t do that apologetic shuffle when they cross the street.

    • Rosa June 29, 2017 at 12:54 am #

      though didn’t SF take out a chunk of urban highway? It would be interesting to see if there were changes in pedestrian injury or fatality rates when that happened. A lot of the most dangerous feeling places I walk or bike are places where people are getting onto or off highways from city streets.

  4. Jackie Williams June 30, 2017 at 9:49 am #

    Im from California and Im still in shock at the agressive deadly driving habbits here in MN. California definatley has a different mind set. Maybe the weather makes people less mean.

  5. GlowBoy June 30, 2017 at 10:18 pm #

    Echoing Jackie, as a recent transplant from the Pacific Northwest I’m also experiencing culture shock at the aggressive driving of Minnesotans. I’ll be specific about the unconscionable behavior I see here:

    1. Really dangerous stuff. On a pretty consistent periodic basis (maybe every few weeks) I see someone do something really insane, like passing me on the right in the Portland Avenue bike lane at 50 mph when I’m driving the speed limit. You don’t EVER see that kind of behavior in Washington or Oregon. My wife is seeing the same thing. Jackie’s not wrong to use the word “mean” here.

    2. Absolute, total disregard for crosswalks. Almost no one ever stops, whether the crosswalk is marked or implied. Doesn’t matter if you’re disabled or walking with children.
    In the Northwest you certainly can’t assume people will stop, but at least on 2-lane roads you won’t have to wait more than a few cars before someone in each direction will stop. Here, you could grow old waiting.

    And in Minnesota, if you as a driver stop for a pedestrian, cars behind will race around you, putting pedestrians in extreme danger. Pedestrians themselves are enablers of this behavior: so timid, they often won’t cross even when you do stop, and there are no cars behind you. C’mon sheeple! Demand your rights and stand up to your oppressors, already! I’ve been to a few developing countries, and drivers’ lack of respect for pedestrians here is basically just as bad.

    What’s odd about the disregard for pedestrians is that I don’t experience the same thing on my bike. Twin Cities drivers are surprisingly deferential and respectful to me as a cyclist, much more so than in Portland. Maybe it’s because the political anti-bike “bikelash” is far worse (seriously) in Oregon than here, but I’m not sure.

    3. Absolute, total disdain for pedestrians even when it isn’t a safety issue. At almost any intersection, especially in the suburbs, you will see drivers coming up to a red light and pulling to a stop IN the crosswalk, even when they’re going straight (i.e., not turning right on red). And I’m not just talking about their nose a couple feet into the crosswalk, but often with their vehicle fully sprawled across the whole thing. And when you try to use one of these crosswalks and get the attention of the driver, they usually don’t back up! In the NW, a driver who did this would look embarrassed, mouth “sorry” and get back out of the way.
    Can’t people see the paint? This isn’t even an issue of being in a hurry. I do not understand this at all. It’s almost like drivers are peeing on pedestrians’ territory to remind them of their “untouchable” status.

    4. Cluelessness about entering intersections when it’s not clear on the other side. Downtown Minneapolis is total gridlock every evening, with officers manually directing traffic at many intersections even though the signals are functioning just fine. I’ve never seen this before. I’m used to NEVER seeing traffic cops unless a signal is out or there’s special event traffic, and I’ve lived in both Portland and Seattle with busy downtowns and tons of traffic. In those places, you only see this in suburban areas, and anyone who does this is seen as a hopeless hick and gets an angry tirade from everyone else.

    Solution: free up half these officers to do other things, while assigning the remainder to simply WRITE TICKETS to drivers who block intersections. Word will get around and people will figure out the very simple rule of not entering an intersection if there isn’t space on the other side.

    Sorry for the rant folks, but this stuff is driving my wife and me crazy. She has lived in a city of 20 million people, and puts it this way: it’s not like we’re a gigantic metropolis, leading the crazy rat-race that people live in bigger cities. We’ve got the highest standard of living of any major metro in the country – so well off that a significant chunk of the middle-class population own lake cabins! So why is everyone here in such a ridiculous hurry?

    I will give Minnesota drivers credit for exactly one thing they do right, and it is my one pet peeve about Oregon drivers: turn signals. Twin Citians mostly signal their turns – and even lane changes! Even that crazy guy swerving his way around other cars at 20mph over the limit is often signaling while doing it! That is awesome. In Portland, turn-signal use not even 50% for turns at intersections, maybe 10-20% for lane changes, and basically zero for pulling off or onto a roadway. Minnesotans are hardly perfect in this regard, but noncompliance isn’t even half what it is in Oregon. So, well done on that point.

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson June 30, 2017 at 10:48 pm #

      “In the NW, a driver who did this would look embarrassed, mouth “sorry” and get back out of the way.
      Can’t people see the paint? This isn’t even an issue of being in a hurry. I do not understand this at all.”

      I had a driver in Sunnyvale, CA, who was already a couple feet behind the crosswalk see me crossing. Give a look of embarrassment and she reversed five more feet away from the crosswalk. I felt I was in the twilight zone.

      • GlowBoy July 5, 2017 at 5:06 pm #

        “I felt I was in the twilight zone.”

        That alone tells me how far we have to go here. The interaction you describe in Sunnyvale is also fairly normal in the Northwest.

    • Rosa July 1, 2017 at 8:29 am #

      I have always been a pretty aggressive pedestrian and cyclist – when I moved here, I was taught this mantra for riding a bike – ass up, elbows out, kick ’em if you have to. And I have indeed kicked cars (to their credit, most drivers whose cars I’ve kicked have looked horrified and embarrassed. As they should – if I can kick you, you were about to hit me!)

      But in the last decade I’ve perfected the Mom Glare that’s necessary for crossing streets with kids here – cars will actually back up out of the crosswalk if you look mean enough. Assuming they don’t roll down their window and tell you off. It works for me now even when I don’t have a kid with me.

      • Will July 3, 2017 at 8:41 pm #

        I have had less fortunate luck. I kicked a vehicle after almost getting run over and the driver left his vehicle in the intersection to fight me. Be careful.

    • Rosa July 1, 2017 at 8:30 am #

      but yeah, the habitually stopping blocking the crosswalk – even if they’re waiting for a left turn arrow, even if they’re going straight, even if they are stopped FOR A TRAIN. There’s 0 expectation of giving any space to pedestrians.

    • Will July 3, 2017 at 8:39 pm #

      We have seen many times what happens when a pedestrian takes the crossing in a street where one driver stops. They get killed.

      Then that person gets blamed for their death.

      • GlowBoy July 5, 2017 at 5:05 pm #

        True Will, but it is not as black-and-white as “assert yourself and you’ll get hit.”

        It is extremely practicable as an alert pedestrian to practice defensive crossing while also taking the right to cross. Step off the curb (a legal requirement) watch approaching traffic closely, maybe even hold up your hand in the STOP gesture or wave a flashlight, and start taking some steps out – all while prepared to jump back if the vehicle isn’t going to stop.

        Seriously, this is not that hard. Minnesotans may be too timid to do this, but I’ve seen this in lots of other places, and it works.

        I do this regularly, and it works much of the time. I’m less bold when I’m with my kids, of course. Not because their lives are more valuable than mine, but because I can react much more quickly when I’m by myself.

        If more pedestrians here would break out of their Scandinavian-British politeness (which disappears once they’re behind the wheel anyway!) and exercise their atrophied right of way in crosswalks, drivers would get used to it and learn to stop.

    • Jackie Williams July 6, 2017 at 8:03 am #

      that is one thing about a true Minnesotan. “turn signals” It’s a core beliefe here. LOL you will be remembered at your funeral for your outstanding use of turn signals. HA HA

  6. GlowBoy June 30, 2017 at 10:22 pm #

    Oops, forgot to mention one more peeve, and it’s the biggest one of all: distracted cellphone use.

    In Oregon and Washington, use of handheld phones has been banned for several years now. You still see it, and of course handsfree has been proven to not be any safer than talking on a handheld, but the ban does have the effect of dramatically reducing the phenomenon of people driving along while blithely interacting with their phones’ touchscreens.

    Again, it’s not like you don’t ever see it in Portland or Seattle, but only a fraction as often, and they’re much more surreptitious about it. The way people do it so brazenly here – and again, this is proven as dangerous as DWI – is truly shocking to me.

  7. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell July 1, 2017 at 8:18 am #

    Laws and enforcement play an important role but I think road design is the biggest determinant of our inattentive high speed crash, injury, and fatality rates.

    Narrower lanes w/ immediately adjacent threatening surfaces (cement curbs, rocks, trees) slow people down a little but more than anything cause people to pay close attention — lest they damage their car.

    Wide radius curbs at junctions and slip lanes encourage taking these quite fast.

    Right-On-Red? We’re encouraging drivers to look in the opposite direction for threats to themselves rather than in the direction they’re driving and the threat they cause to others.

    Multiple lanes. In many countries it is considered a massive step to go from two narrow lanes (one in each direction) to anything else and this is a jump that requires stop lights at all pedestrian crossings.

    Unprotected crossings. More than two lanes or more than 30 MPH should have stop lights.

    Then there’s the big macro thing. We expect to be able to drive fast everywhere and we plan how long to get places based on this because that’s what our roads tell us. There’s little distinction between interstates and arterials. We should have three vastly different environments; high speed motorways, low speed surface streets (arterials & collectors rarely above 30 MPH), and 20 MPH residential. We think much differently in Europe where we know that driving on most surface streets will be quite slow and we plan accordingly.

    Some drivers will respond to enforcement or to simply being more considerate of others safety but most not. We’ve been screaming for people to pay better attention for 50 years and sadly it’s accomplished little or nothing. In the 60’s and 70’s we had constant TV commercials about driving safer. We’ve had billboard campaigns since the 40’s.

    Cement enforces better than paint (or paper tickets).

    • Rosa July 1, 2017 at 8:36 am #

      Getting a ticket is at least as painful as scraping your undercarriage on a speed bump. Enforcement has a lot of benefits over infrastructure change – it’s instant, it’s cheap, you don’t have to have a million planning meetings (what, are people going to go complain that you’re enforcing the laws that already exist? When they all claim to be the unicorn driver who never breaks the law?). It changes habits at least some of the time and if the effect wears off quickly you can always just do it again.

      The main downside seems to be that if you do it on white commuters they get mad at you, and we can’t control the police department to keep them from just using enforcement to harass and sometimes kill people of color.

      I wonder if a “don’t block the box” ticket trap downtown or a “stop for pedestrians” one around schools in the fall wouldn’t be more equitable and safe for drivers than the “stop whoever looks like a problem” version.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell July 2, 2017 at 7:48 am #

        The problem is that enforcement doesn’t work until you have an enforceable system. We don’t have that.

        We have a road system designed to encourage law breaking and that has normalized law breaking. For enforcement to work in the U.S. you’d need 10 to 20 times as many cops enforcing the laws and you’d need much greater penalties for violations. Even then you would still have a high number of fatalities because of all of the ‘I didn’t see them’ defenses that are difficult for enforcement alone.

        Human nature has too strong of a ‘it will never happen to me’ bit that gives humans permission to take risks. This is particularly problematic when drivers are taking risks with other people’s lives. It will never happen to me becomes ‘I will never kill another person’, yet 412 people in Minnesota killed other people last year.

        In The Netherlands for example the road system is largely self-enforcing so there are many fewer bits that require cops to do enforcement. They have a manageable enforceable system. The road designs force drivers to go more slowly and to pay much closer attention. The problem isn’t scraping your undercarriage but damaging a tyre or wheel that will cost you hundreds of dollars or thousands if you sideswipe a parked car. If you don’t drive cautiously all of the time then you’ll be constantly forking over for repairs to your car and others cars and property.

        If there is an unsignalized crossing of a 2-lane road then there will often be something that forces drivers to slow and pay close attention—like the entire road narrowing or a bit or a center refuge island so each motor lane has to negotiate between cement curbs that are 8′ (2.5m) wide. There is no ‘I can speed through here because there are likely no pedestrians or the pedestrians will step back to let me through and I doubt there’s a cop around to ticket me’. Speeding through carries a very high likelihood of damage to the drivers car that will cost them a lot of money to repair.

        If crossing more than 2 slow lanes then there will almost always (or always?) be a red/yellow/green stoplight.

        There is no ambiguity about right-of-way in their road designs. Drivers cannot justify their actions with mental gymnastics.

        • Rosa July 19, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

          Except that we’ve had times in the past when we had more enforcement of speed laws, and I know people who live in cities with the same kinds of street design we have – like Denver – who get tickets for stopping in the crosswalk, not yielding in a school zone, etc. And car drivers behave differently there. Not to mention all the tiny towns with 2 lane highways through them who get compliance on speed by being known as speed traps. Sometimes the aftereffects of enforcement last for years.

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