The Brainerd Dispatch front page story, "Grim Statistics," on Dec. 6, should be extremely concerning to all residents of the area. Crow Wing County's continued presence among the 15 deadliest Minnesota counties for alcohol-related deaths and serious injuries, and Cass County's renewed presence on the list, is a frustrating reality for the community. Looking deeper at the data, the reality is even more grim for our area than the raw numbers show.
For the years 2004 to 2006, the state provided the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by alcohol-related traffic accidents in each county. However, the report did not compare those numbers to the number of people living in each county or the amount of driving that is done in each county. For example, it may be expected that Hennepin County, as the most populous county in the state, would have the greatest number of casualties, but how did the other counties compare, given their lower populations? Unfortunately, Crow Wing and Cass Counties can each claim a terrible "we're No. 1" from this data.
Crow Wing County's 18 alcohol-related deaths and its population of 61,038 yield a rate of 29.5 deaths per 100,000 people-the highest by far of all 15 counties named in the report. Cass County comes in a close second at 24.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the metro area counties of Hennepin, Dakota, Washington, Ramsey and Anoka have the lowest rates of alcohol-related deaths, at between 4.2 deaths per 100,000 (Hennepin) and 8.8 deaths per 100,000 (Anoka).
When serious injuries are added in, Cass County registers first at a frightening 110.5 total deaths and serious injuries per 100,000. In this category, Crow Wing County (68.8 per 100,000) comes in third after Beltrami (74.3 per 100,000). Again, the metro counties have far lower rates, with Washington County the lowest (18.0 deaths and serious injuries per 100,000).
Some of the difference in these figures may be explained by the fact that Crow Wing and Cass County populations swell with tourists during the summer, and vacationers may let down their guard about driving while intoxicated. It would be informative to look back at the individual crashes to determine whether they involved local residents or visitors. However, St. Louis County also contains many tourist destinations, including Duluth and the BWCA; yet that county's rates of death (11.7 per 100,000) and combined death or serious injury (26.5 per 100,000) are a fraction of the rates in the Central Lakes area.
A request to the state Department of Public Safety provided statistics comparing alcohol-related crashes to the number of miles driven each year in a county. The computation of death and serious injury per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) might be expected to show greater parity among all areas of the state by accounting for the surge in the number of vehicles on area roads during tourist season. The pattern, however, is similar to the rate by population. Among the 15 counties in this report, metro area counties have significantly lower rates of death or serious injury-ranging from 1.9 in Washington County to 3.5 in Anoka County. The rates in Cass (6.9) and Crow Wing County (5.1) are second and third highest after Beltrami County (7.55 deaths or injuries per 100 million VMT).
After studying these statistics, one might wonder whether law enforcement in the lakes area was doing enough to curb the rate of alcohol-related crashes. In Crow Wing, Cass and Beltrami Counties, the number of arrests for driving while intoxicated in 2004 and 2005 amounted to rates of 18 to 20 arrests per 1,000 residents. Only Blue Earth County had a slightly higher rate of arrest. By contrast, the rates of arrest in metro area counties were between 10 and 13 per 1,000 residents. Again, since these figures are calculated using the year-round populations of each county, the results may be skewed by seasonal increases. In any case, it appears that lakes area counties are making a serious effort to combat the above statistics. Sadly, the data suggests that in this area, driving under the influence is regarded as more acceptable than in other parts of the state.
ANNE NELSON FISHER is an adjunct math instructor at Central Lakes College and is a member of the Brainerd City Council.
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