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Our view: Safer roads still need help from lawmakers

Minnesota has good news to report about a decrease in highway fatalities, but for the sake of the next person to die on a Minnesota road, we wish it was even better.

Last week, the Star Tribune reported on the success of the state's "Toward Zero Deaths" initiative, designed to decrease highway deaths. The newspaper reported that since the departments of Transportation, Public Safety and Health launched the initiative in 2003, Minnesota's traffic deaths have decreased by 45 percent.

This is contrary to what's happening on highways elsewhere in the U.S., where deaths declined consistently in the years between 1985 and 2011 but increased in following years, the Star Tribune reported.

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum also is pushing a program to reduce highway deaths. "Vision Zero" was launched in December in conjunction with the Highway Patrol and the Department of Health. The North Dakota program will be implemented via various strategies, including public education, enforcement of existing laws, technology advancements, infrastructure improvements and working with the Legislature to ensure state laws represent best practices in public safety.

It's important to note the part about the Legislature, because that's where the heavy lifting in these programs must originate. In North Dakota, for instance, speeding fines are ridiculously low, seatbelt laws are not a primary offense, there are no mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists and state infrastructure is aging. If these life-taking issues are to be solved, it will come via legislation.

In Minnesota, the targeted departments are carrying various areas of responsibility. For example, the state Department of Transportation is tasked with making highways safer through engineering and infrastructure technology; the Department of Public Safety is enforcing DUI and speeding laws; and the Department of Health is working to have effective emergency services in place to be able to react quickly to trauma.

These tasks already would exist, but the TZD website says the initiative "aims to tie these together with a common vision and mission."

How? The program uses data to target areas for improvement and then employ proven countermeasures, the website notes. When data show a stretch of highway is prone to certain kinds of crashes, improvements are made. The Star Tribune reports that more than 578 miles of cable median barriers were installed last year alone, reducing head-on collisions.

So the TZD program appears to be working in Minnesota. But with all this good news, one question remains: Why didn't the Minnesota Legislature, during its most recent session, pass a bill that would have required drivers to use only hands-free cellphone services?

That would have been the icing on Minnesota's celebratory cake, but the proposal didn't even make it out of committee.

The DOT, the Department of Health and the Department of Public Safety are doing their part to reduce traffic fatalities on Minnesota highways. Good for them.

But if Minnesota really wants to put a dent in its traffic fatalities and if Minnesota truly wants to be a state setting the standard for improved highway safety, the Legislature will have to do its part, too.