ST. PAUL (AP) -- Traffic deaths have jumped dramatically in Minnesota, and safety officials are taking that grim message to the streets.
A new billboard over Interstate 94 in St. Paul will feature a regularly updated tally of traffic deaths on Minnesota roads.
Between Jan. 1 and Monday, the Department of Public Safety counted 138 traffic deaths, up 42 percent from the first three months of 2001 when 97 such fatalities were reported.
Officials are particularly concerned as Minnesota heads into spring and summer, when the state typically logs the most fatal accidents.
"With a quarter of the year behind us, we could be looking at 800 fatalities by the end of the year if we continue to see this kind of increase throughout the year," said Kathy Swanson, director of the Office of Traffic Safety for the Department of Public Safety.
The last time Minnesota had 800 fatalities was in 1980, when there were 863.
Swanson and others aren't sure of the reason for the spike in fatal crashes, but they suspect the mild winter -- not the snow and ice -- was a factor.
"Typically, fatal crashes happen more on sunny days in dry weather," department spokesman Kevin Smith said. "People let their guard down when the weather is nicer than not. And I think we saw a few more multiple fatality crashes than we're used to."
Speeding, driver inattention and "physical impairment," which typically means drunken driving, are the top three things that contributed to fatal wrecks across the state in 2000, the most recent year for such statistics.
Most fatal crashes happened in rural areas, outside cities or towns, while 29 percent occurred in urban areas, according to state officials.
Since 1998, Minnesota has seen a slight but steady decrease in traffic deaths, with 625 in 2000 and 568 in 2001. Nationally, the number of fatalities has hovered around 40,000 annually since 1995 with only slight fluctuations.
Many traffic deaths could be prevented if motorists simply fasten their seat belts, state and national officials say.
"Seat belts are 50 percent effective -- they'll save your life in half the crashes," said Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reflecting on 30 years of research on the subject.
In Minnesota, authorities believe about a quarter of all motorists don't wear a seat belt.
For that reason, state officials decided the new billboard, visible to westbound traffic on I-94, near Minnesota 280, should flash the question: "Are You Buckled Up?"
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