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Minneapolis Needs Better Street Design, but Minnesota Needs Better Enforcement

A few weeks ago Our Streets Minneapolis published a statement of their position on the Minneapolis Transportation Action Plan, drawing attention for their view that they did not support greater enforcement of traffic laws. Meanwhile, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s 2020 proposed budget includes funding for a reconstituted traffic enforcement unit with three additional officers, a move that puts the mayor on the side of some more enforcement.

The tension around how we reach the shared goal of fewer deaths on our roads is important. Other developed countries have shown that enforcement along with better street design is an important part of improved road safety. But institutional and legal constraints make it unlikely that we can apply these approaches in Minneapolis right now.

How to Get to Safety

Widespread enforcement of road safety legislation is an important, but certainly not the only, reason why other high-income countries kill fewer people on the roads than the US. The World Health Organisation, for example, says that “enacting and enforcing legislation on key risk factors including speed, drink driving … are critical components of an integrated strategy” to reduce fatalities.[i] Effective enforcement in line with practices abroad would probably result in a 20-40% decline in traffic fatalities in Minnesota, saving 70-150 lives each year.

A decent way to measure the safety of roads and streets is to compare the road death rate per 100,000 people every year. In the United States we have a rate of 11.4/100,000 people. In Sweden, the Netherlands, and Britain, the rate is just 2.5-3 deaths per 100,000. France, which 25 years ago had the same rate as the US (15/100,000) now has a rate of just over 5, similar to Canada and Australia, who last had rates comparable to the US in the early 1980s. A perhaps little known fact is that Minnesota does OK, with the 8th lowest rate in the country: 8.8/100,000. But 8th lowest in the US is worse than every other OECD country except Turkey. Road fatalities alone account for ⅙ of the difference between US men’s life expectancy and similarly-well off countries in Europe and Japan.[ii]

Figure 1: US road safety has lagged other developed countries for several decades

US road death rates have gradually diverged from those in other high-income countries in the last 40 years.

How have other countries achieved larger and faster reductions in fatalities? Driving less is definitely part of it. Street design—narrower streets, safe bike lanes—is another. Freeways, despite their other faults, can be a safe design, compared to the alternative of undivided highways.

Enforcement has been a third component, including in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, rightly looked to for safer street design.[iii] An important precondition for effective enforcement of traffic laws is to think of bad driving as a public health problem like smoking, sexually transmitted diseases, or poor nutrition: widespread and partly the result of common human temptations and behavior. Of course, these are imperfect analogies when taken too far. More enforcement can be an effective way to reset the driving behavior of millions around speed and driving after drinking alcohol.

Unfortunately in Minneapolis today, constrained by federal and state law, enforcement of traffic laws with our existing institutions and approaches will not be effective. Federal and state law constrain us to an out-dated model of selective enforcement, and treating driver behavior as a relatively rare criminal act which we need individual suspicion to investigate, rather than a widespread, somewhat risky behavior.

What are the interventions that have worked, and why can we not do them here as effectively? Impaired driving and excessive speed are the two main behaviors that other high-income countries focused on reducing since the 1980s when America’s fatality rate began to diverge from its peers.

Fighting impaired driving

A highly effective intervention against impaired driving has been what Australians and New Zealanders call “random breath testing”, the Irish call “mandatory alcohol testing,” and Americans call sobriety checkpoints. Random breath testing is also widely used in Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands among other countries. In Sweden and the Netherlands 40% of drivers report they have been stopped for a random breath test in the past three years, implying a similar level of testing to Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.

A "booze bus" in New South Wales

Random breath testing is sometimes done with the support of a “booze bus” that processes more seriously impaired drivers while sober ones go on their way. Flickr photo used under Creative Commons License:

The impact has been substantial. In Australia and New Zealand, 30-40% of the reduction in road fatalities since the early 1990s has been attributed to the reduced frequency of drunk driving after random breath testing was introduced. Ireland introduced random testing in 2006, and their road fatality rate has dropped from 9/100,000 to 3 in the past 12 years. An international review combining evidence from several European countries, New Zealand, and the Australian states found significant reductions in deaths in all countries that had implemented random breath testing.[iv] The Australasian[v] approach which includes ongoing, widespread and graphic media campaigns aimed at shifting social norms and behavior—”If you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot”, “Anyone, anywhere, anytime”—was found to be even more effective.


It is important to be clear on the scale and approach involved. Doing this in Minnesota, on the scale it is done effectively abroad, would mean stopping and breath testing 1.5 – 5 million people every year. Australian guidelines, based on international evidence, suggest an effective annual ratio of stops to licensed drivers is between 1.5 and 0.5. The goal is to deter drunk driving by significantly raising the probability of apprehension, but also by changing social norms about drink driving. Australian researchers found that within several years of introducing widespread random breath testing the fear of being stopped became a socially acceptable reason to not drink, even in social groups that normally encouraged heavy drinking and greater risk taking.[vi] Widespread breath testing also provides, as Australian guidelines suggest, an opportunity for citizens to have a positive encounter with police.[vii] The vast majority who are not impaired are meant to be encouraged and congratulated (and in my experience, admittedly as a white man, having been stopped twice in Australia and at least half a dozen times in New Zealand, this happens).

Millions of police stops every year! No doubt many of you see a massive overreach of government, a recipe for police abuse, and a poor targeting of resources. And indeed these concerns were all raised abroad. But with appropriate guidelines, and civilian oversight these concerns have been overcome. Random breath testing has been found compatible with constitutional bars to unreasonable searches and the right to privacy in other countries’ constitutions.[viii] That being said, stops for random breath testing should not be allowed to expand into more general searches of a vehicle, and the location of large-scale checkpoints should be planned and reviewed by civilian authorities in conjunction with police. Finally, the media should be allowed and encouraged to document and report on the operations of checkpoints without compromising surprises about their location. Anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Is random breath testing worth it when weighing money spent and lives saved?

Yes, very much so. Australian documents from Victoria (like Minnesota dominated by a large metropolitan area, but with a substantial “out-state” population) suggest the average cost of a random breath test is $15-20. Applying these estimates to Minnesota would imply a cost of $20-100 million per year. Even a 20% reduction—at the lower end of estimated effects—in annual road deaths from a random breath testing program in Minnesota would save 70-80 lives annually. If we value a human life at $5-10 million a year, around the amount that behavior and surveys suggest is the collective average, paying about a million dollars to save a life is a bargain.

Effective Speed Reduction Technology

The other major behavior successfully addressed with mass enforcement is speed, particularly on rural roads, freeways, and “stroads” with a high design speed. Speed cameras have been particularly important in Britain where suspicion-less random breath testing is not yet used. Speed compliance in Britain is significantly better than even in Sweden and the Netherlands.[ix] In France, the introduction of the “Automated Speed Enforcement Program” in 2003, with 2,800 cameras operational by 2010, contributed to the rapid decline in French road fatalities from American levels to the OECD average. Sweden and the Netherlands both operate more than 1000 speed cameras around the country.

Different places have taken different approaches to the use of speed cameras, but as with random breath testing the idea is extensive and ongoing camera use. Sweden has deployed large numbers of fixed cameras, and a smaller number of mobile cameras and generally publicizes their deployment. The use of speed cameras is focused on areas where the design speed of the road exceeds a safe speed, and a greater number of these are in rural areas. In Australia, the state of Victoria has relied more on mobile cameras and not disclosing where they are being used. Britain has used a mix of these strategies.

Do speed cameras save lives?

Yes. The evidence about speed cameras is more often about the effectiveness of particular locations where reductions of 10-50% in fatalities can be seen.[x] Their more general effects on overall fatality rates are less often studied. But the evidence over time from France and Britain—which have relied much more heavily on speed cameras than alcohol testing—also points to significant reductions in lives lost.

Driver going 36mph by cyclist

Driver going significantly over the speed limit in Saint Paul.

De-criminalizing traffic offenses 

To this point I’ve used the language of enforcement which is where our debate started. But we can mean different things by “enforcement”, and learn from abroad. If we want to deter risky behaviors, remind people of the consequences of bad behaviors, and promote better driving, we need to remove many traffic offenses from a criminal framework. If we also track people’s behavior over time, we can then apply criminal sanctions only to the relatively small number of people who persistently behave dangerously.

Forgive the parochialism, but we could learn a lesson from New Zealand and keep many driving violations off criminal records. Keeping minor violations off criminal records reduces the social consequences for matters such as housing and employment. What is the point at which we say behavior is so serious it should be immediately treated as a criminal matter?

An effective approach is to treat one very serious violation (e.g. an injury accident at high speed, or being significantly over the speed or alcohol limit) or multiple minor violations as grounds for criminal charges and automatic license suspension. To do this, we should follow the practice of many European countries and Australasia, and introduce a “penalty points” or “demerit” system that tracks driver behavior over several years.

The details vary across countries, but the approach is similar. More serious offenses incur more points. Because the chance of killing or injuring someone is non-linear—much higher at 40mph than 30mph, and vastly higher again at 50mph—the penalties are higher the faster you go, or the more you drink. In New Zealand, for example, going 20 mph over the speed limit penalizes drivers 5 times as many points as going 6 mph over the limit. Penalty points systems help drivers make safer choices by making the consequences of additional risky behavior automatic. They complement higher levels of enforcement by making the consequences clear and predictable. In Spain and Italy the introduction of penalty points systems was associated with a 20-30% reduction in overall traffic fatalities.

Reducing discretion

In both the identification (breath testing and speed cameras) and the sanctioning of traffic safety offenses, an important principle abroad has been to reduce the amount of discretion afforded to police officers and judges. By raising the chance of apprehension now  (you’re caught speeding) and in the future (you do it again, you’ll be caught), and making clear what will happen (you will lose your license), we have a better chance of getting drivers to take fewer risks with their own and others’ lives.

Why can’t we do effective enforcement?

Ironically these matters are controlled, for now, by legal decisions made before 30 years of international evidence have shown how well-designed enforcement is effective at saving life and limb, and can be done in a reasonable way. Four things stand between Minnesota and effective, safe enforcement of traffic laws to improve driver behavior

  1. Truly random breath testing has been made ineffectual by the United States Supreme Court which in a 1990 decision required that the times and locations of sobriety checkpoints be publicized. In Minnesota, a 1994 state Supreme Court decision rendered even these less-effective approaches unconstitutional and banned random breath testing as inconsistent with the Minnesota constitutional provision against unreasonable searches. Notably, when this decision was made some justices dissented, arguing that a random breath testing program was reasonable. Nevertheless, until a public agency decides to try and overturn this decision, we cannot do random breath testing in Minnesota.
  2. Camera-based enforcement, whether speed or red-light faces fewer legal barriers. The Minnesota Supreme Court decided in 2007 that Minneapolis couldn’t unilaterally enact a red-light camera law, ruling legislation had to be consistent throughout the state. The Court in fact declined to comment on the due process implications of camera enforcement.[xi] Nevertheless due process concerns are raised about camera-based enforcement. Perhaps as a consequence, in a trial this summer, the State Patrol and MNDoT have been using red-light cameras in conjunction with officers stopping vehicles and issuing a citation.Requiring a police stop significantly increases the costs and risks of camera-based enforcement, and makes it difficult to change behavior on a wide scale.The lesson from Britain, Sweden, France, and Victoria is that widespread camera deployment, whether covert or overt can eventually reduce driving speeds everywhere. A ticket in the mail, a fine, and treating camera-documented violations with non-criminal sanctions can still achieve significant behavioral change. If the owner who receives the ticket for a camera-documented infringement is not the driver, they probably know the driver. The uncomfortable conversation when the ticket arrives — why were you speeding? why didn’t you stop for the red light? —  will often get us the same result as when the vehicle owner gets a ticket for their own driving. The goal of traffic safety enforcement is not citations, it’s changing driver behavior now (I might be ticketed) and in the future (I learned a lesson).
  3. We also have a problem with a dispersion of authority over traffic safety not present abroad. Who is responsible for reducing road fatalities in Minnesota? Everyone and no-one. As James Densley and Jon Olson noted 3 years ago Minnesota has 441 police departments. In Britain with a population 13 times greater there are 48 agencies. While the structure of policing in Europe and Australasia varies, there are many fewer agencies involved. In Scandinavia, New Zealand, and the Australian states—societies with a similarly sized (2-9 million) and distributed population—road safety enforcement is generally the responsibility of one policy and strategy making organization, and a couple of enforcement and operational agencies.In Victoria, for example, the Transport Accident Commission sets strategy and provides policy advice. Another agency (VicRoads) does driver licensing and tracks “demerit” points. A single statewide police department does the labor-intensive work of stopping and testing drivers, and operating speed cameras (they also do nearly all other policing). Risky driving is a problem throughout Minnesota, but we do not have institutions that allow us to address the issue in an equitable and efficient way across the state.

    Multiple agencies enforce traffic laws in Minnesota

    The Towards Zero Deaths initiative in Minnesota requires co-ordination between many different agencies (

  4. Finally, trust in the police in the United States is significantly lower than in Australasia and Europe. Even before 2014 when public attention on police shootings became widespread, a third of Americans had little or no trust in police. In most European countries and Australasia, 10-20% of the population had the same level of police distrust.[xii] Since 2014 there has been a greater division of public opinion on trust in American policing. Self-described conservatives are more confident in the police, while liberals’ confidence has declined. Racial disparities in police shootings are particularly high in our region.[xiii] Thus the widespread public trust in the police required to implement effective road safety enforcement likely doesn’t exist in Minneapolis today.

After removing minor traffic offenses from a criminal framework, any expansion of traffic safety enforcement should be performed by officers who do not carry firearms on their person. In several of the countries mentioned here police do not carry firearms, and in all of them, the police use of firearms is rare.

So while enforcement has been an important part of international progress on traffic safety, there are significant legal, institutional and social barriers to it being done effectively in Minnesota, let alone in Minneapolis by itself. The conversation about better enforcement is one that affects all Minnesotans and that we need to have across the state. Indeed, speed cameras and alcohol testing are likely to save more lives in Greater Minnesota than downtown. We need to change our policing practices and institutions, and we need to know that not being able to safely and effectively change driver behavior costs lives. Enforcement can save a significant number of lives, and we need to find a way to do it in the effective ways it’s been done abroad. But right now, without waiting for police reform and the reversal of Supreme Court decisions, what Minneapolis can do is build better streets.


Sources cited

[i] World Health Organisation, Global Status Report on Road Safety, 2018. Available at

[ii] Fenelon, Andrew, Li-Hui Chen and Susan P. Baker. 2016. “Major Causes of Injury Death and the Life Expectancy Gap between the United States and Other High-Income Countries injury Deaths and Life Expectancy Gap of the United States letters.” JAMA 315(6):609-11. doi: 10.1001/jama.2015.15564.

[iii] Luoma, Juha and Michael Sivak. 2014. “Why Is Road Safety in the U.S. Not on Par with Sweden, the U.K., and the Netherlands? Lessons to Be Learned.” European Transport Research Review 6(3):295-302. doi: 10.1007/s12544-014-0131-7.

[iv] Erke, Alena, Charles Goldenbeld and Truls Vaa. 2009. “The Effects of Drink-Driving Checkpoints on Crashes—a Meta-Analysis.” Accident Analysis & Prevention 41(5):914-23. A free version is available here:

[v] Australasia = Australia and New Zealand.

[vi] Homel, Ross. 1988. “Random Breath Testing in Australia: A Complex Deterrent.” Australian Drug and Alcohol Review 7(3):231-41. doi: 10.1080/09595238880000471.

[vii] Kiptoo Terer and Rick Brown, “Effective drink driving prevention and enforcement strategies: Approaches to improving practice”, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2014. Available at

[viii] The US 4th Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”. “ For example Ireland guarantees “No citizen shall be deprived of his personal liberty save in accordance with law”. The NZ Bill of Rights has nearly identical language to the 4th Amendment: “Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure, whether of the person, property, or correspondence or otherwise”. Netherlands: “Everyone shall have the right to inviolability of his person, without prejudice to restrictions laid down by or pursuant to Act of Parliament.” Sweden: Everyone shall be protected in their relations with the public institutions against any physical violation … Everyone shall likewise be protected against body searches … everyone shall be protected in their relations with the public institutions against significant invasions of their personal privacy”

[ix] Luoma, Juha and Michael Sivak. 2014. “Why Is Road Safety in the U.S. Not on Par with Sweden, the U.K., and the Netherlands? Lessons to Be Learned.” European Transport Research Review 6(3):295-302. doi: 10.1007/s12544-014-0131-7.

[x] Wilson, Cecilia, Charlene Willis, Joan K. Hendrikz, Robyne Le Brocque and Nicholas Bellamy. 2010. “Speed Cameras for the Prevention of Road Traffic Injuries and Deaths.” Cochrane database of systematic reviews (11).

[xi] “It is, however, important to emphasize that our decision does not determine the general validity or invalidity of photo-enforcement of traffic violations … We, therefore, do not reach Kuhlman’s due process arguments.”

[xii] Calculated from World Values Survey data:

[xiii] Edwards, Frank, Michael H. Esposito and Hedwig Lee. 2018. “Risk of Police-Involved Death by Race/Ethnicity and Place, United States, 2012–2018.” American Journal of Public Health 108(9):1241-48. doi: 10.2105/ajph.2018.304559.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon @[email protected]