Progress amidst the pain

REDWOOD FALLS – On average, at least one person is killed in vehicle crashes in Minnesota every day. For Heather and Brad Bigler and Carol Iverson, statistics are outweighed by personal tragedy.

In July 2012, a drunk driver swerved into the oncoming lane and struck a car carrying Bigler, the Southwest Minnesota State University men’s head basketball coach, his wife, Heather, his wife’s grandmother and the Biglers’ 5-month-old son, Drake.

Drake died in the emergency room.

On Thanksgiving day, 2009, Marshall resident Carol Iverson got a phone call that changed her life forever.

Iverson’s mother-in-law, Shirley, sister-in-law, Deb, and 8-year-old niece, Lexi, were killed when a car driven by a 17-year-old who didn’t have his lights on past dusk, crossed two lanes of traffic and hit their car head on.

The Biglers and Iverson told their stories Thursday to representatives of state and local government, law enforcement, highway engineers, educators and emergency medical personnel at the Southwest Regional Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) conference in Redwood Falls.

Their stories put a human face on the statistics and research findings of the TZD program, now in its 10th year.

“Our overarching goal is to prevent deaths and serious injuries on our roadways,” said Amy Roggenbuck, Minnesota Department of Transportation TZD coordinator for the 14-county southwest region.

The TZD program is a multidisciplinary approach, called “the four Es”: Education, Emergency Medical and Trauma Services, Enforcement and Engineering. Education to change driver behavior, creating systems that make emergency medical services fast, efficient and coordinated, giving law enforcement the tools to ensure compliance with the traffic laws and evaluating road design to make travel safer.

According to MnDOT statistics, the four most significant factors in traffic deaths, taken singly or in combination, are alcohol or chemically impaired drivers, speed, inattention and not wearing seat belts.

All of those factors are within someone’s control.

“We don’t call them ‘accidents’ anymore,” said Jon Huseby, MnDOT District 8 engineer. “We call them crashes. A lot can be done to prevent them.”

The drunk driver who struck the Bigler vehicle is currently serving a four-year sentence in prison. His blood alcohol level was more than four times Minnesota’s legal limit.

“Just think before you get behind the wheel,” Heather Bigler said. “Drinking behind the wheel is 100 percent preventable. It’s a conscious decision.”

The teenager who killed Iverson’s family was not impaired. He was listening to a radio turned up very loud and not paying attention for a crucial eight seconds while he drifted slowly across two lanes into oncoming traffic.

The driver was sentenced to six weekends in juvenile detention. No restitution was required, though the Iversons incurred more than $30,000 in funeral costs alone.

Minnesota State Highway Patrol Capt. John Ebner told harrowing stories of the results of inattentive driving, impairment and not buckling up.

“We had one double fatality crash where we found the cell phone wedged into the steering wheel,” Ebner said. “It had to have been in the girl’s hand. We had another where the woman was pregnant, drunk, unbelted and texting.”

Ebner pointed out that driving safely is not enough if the other driver is not, but everyone can practice self-defense by buckling their seat belts. Almost half of all traffic fatalities are unbuckled drivers or passengers.

But the question is, is driver education having any effect on the number of traffic deaths?

Katie Fleming, research analyst for MnDOT, presented a graph showing the number of roadway fatalities in the state from 1995 to the present.

The highest number of traffic deaths in the past 18 years was 665 in 2003, the year TZD was founded. Since then, the number has dropped steadily to 395 in 2012.

“Had the trend continued, we would be at 700 deaths for 2012 versus 395,” Fleming said. “We’re seeing significant changes.”