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Drive using common sense, sobriety, seat belts this holiday

Don't drive like knuckleheads this weekend!

In a less politically correct world, that would be the message public safety officials might really want to issue.

The actual missive, more diplomatically worded, is caution laced with realism.

"On these major holiday breaks, we often see six or seven deaths a weekend," said Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) communications officer Nathan Bowie. "These can really be very deadly weekends."

Even though 12 percent fewer people have died on Minnesota highways this year compared to this time in 2007, traffic accidents nevertheless have an estimated $1.65 billion economic impact in lost wages, medical expenses, insurance costs and productivity losses - just in Minnesota.

And while that reduction in traffic deaths is good news, state officials say they can't conclusively link the declining fatality rate to high gas prices, slower speeds and people staying home.

That's because the 2008 "death count" reflects a five-year trend of falling fatality rates.

"States across the country are seeing significant drops in deaths," Bowie noted. "It (higher gas prices and reduced speeds) could be a factor but now we don't have any hard evidence of that yet."

Commuting workers, not weekend or holiday travelers, may be the most frequent traffic victims. That's because the deadliest hours for fatal crashes in 2007 were 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. (35 percent of all fatalities occurred) and 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., when 32 percent of all fatal crashes occurred.

Those are some of the 'factoids' released this week as part of "Crash Facts 2007," an annual compilation of crash statistics published by the DPS.

And as motorists head off for a long holiday weekend, DPS officials are warning that they're seeing several alarming trends - and some old habits that motorists refuse to break.

Impaired, fatigued or inattentive drivers continue to cause a majority of traffic accidents. And once those crashes occur, vehicle occupants not wearing safety belts face a considerably higher risk of death or injury.

There were 510 fatalities in 2007. Those included 399 motorists, 61 motorcyclists, 33 pedestrians, 4 bicyclists, 4 ATV riders, 3 snowmobilers, 3 deaths due to farm equipment and 3 attributed to other factors. Of the 399 motorists killed, 49 percent died because they weren't wearing safety belts; 190 died because they were drunk.

"Year in and year out the two big contributing factors to fatal crashes are seat belt non-use and impaired, alcohol-related crashes," said Bowie.

More than 38,600 arrests were made in 2007 for drunken driving, the DPS statistics indicate.

And then there's speed, which remains a top factor in fatal crashes.

"You're not going to make up that much time going 5 mph, 10 mph faster," said Hubbard County chief deputy Frank Homer. "I always get a kick out of this when I'm in my private vehicle and a car goes around me. I end up right behind them going into town... so what kind of time did you make up there anyway?"

Both Homer and Bowie urge motorists to leave in time for their destinations so the urge to speed diminishes.

"Everybody's always in a hurry and we want to get from A to B as soon as possible," Homer said. "But we always have lives and personal property we have to take into account when we're out on the highways."

If drivers leave early, they're less apt to get bouts of "road rage" sitting in congested traffic or work zones, Homer said.

Inattentive, weary drivers also worry authorities.

"Make sure you get plenty of sleep" before you set out on a road trip, Homer advises. "That's another issue we have out there. People are just tired. They're on their cell phones; they're not paying attention. You've just got to be on the alert."

Another trend the 2007 DPS report found was that although motorcycles comprise only 4 percent of all traffic on the road, motorcyclists represent 12 percent of the state's fatalities.

Motorcycle deaths have declined slightly since 2006, when 70 people died on bikes. Last year 61 died. This year to date 41 persons have died on motorcycles and the death rate may be inching up to record levels, traffic safety officials say.

They issued statewide warnings earlier this week after four people died in motorcycle crashes last week and two riders were seriously injured.

As more people try to save on gas, they're riding motorcycles, said DPS spokesman Pat Hahn. Many of those riders are inexperienced.

"Everything changes on a motorcycle," Hahn said. "You're vulnerable. One little thing on a motorcycle can have dramatic consequences."

Hahn advises motorcyclists, regardless of skill level, to take a driving class, wear protective clothing, including a helmet, and keep the rider's upper body visible by wearing bright colors or reflective stripes.

And don't be a knucklehead. Drive sober and within posted speed limits.