Minnesota State Patrol Chief Matt Langer and his team aim to do everything in their power to clamp down on speeding this year.
"The one thing we heard over and over from Minnesotans throughout 2020 was that speeds were out of control," he said. "We're seeing a great increase in the number of drivers traveling at ridiculous speeds."
Statewide, the number of drivers cited for speeds of 100 mph or more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, jumping from 533 to 1,068.
The Northland proved no exception. with the total number of 100-plus mph tickets issued in St. Louis, Carlton and Lake counties climbing from 25 in 2019 to 53 in 2020.
Carlton County speeders took the cake, as 29 motorists there were cited for violations of 100 mph or more in 2020. That included two 126 mph citations issued in quick succession during the evening of Dec. 20 on Interstate 35, involving a 19- and a 20-year-old driver, both male.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials nabbed 20 people in St. Louis County for three-digit speeding in 2020 — more than double the eight such violations they recorded the prior year. The most egregious ticket of the lot was given to a 20-year-old man traveling at 110 mph in a 65 mph zone on April 8, 2020.
Of the four 100-mph-or-greater tickets issued in Lake County, the most excessive speed violation involved a 54-year-old man driving north on Minnesota Highway 61 at 107 mph.
Perhaps of little surprise given its geography and twisting roadways, Cook County was the only place in the Northland not to hand out a single 100 mph ticket in 2020.
Still, Langer said the problem has been anything but isolated.
"It's not a metro issue. It's not a Greater Minnesota issue. It's not an urban issue or a rural issue. It's everywhere across the state. And it's all the time. That's why we're doubling down," he said.
Tickets for excessive speeds first spiked in March 2020, as cases of COVID-19 took off and social distancing guidelines went into effect, said Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota Office of Traffic and Safety. He notes the cost has been substantial, as the state documented 120 speed-related traffic fatalities in 2020 — the most in a dozen years and reversing what had been an encouraging downward trend in the numbers.
"Speed kills," said Hanson, noting that there was at least a 12% increase in the number of serious and fatal accidents in which speed was a factor.
As for the correlation between the pandemic and excessive speeding, Langer said: "There's less congestion. There is more open road. And there's this perceived indifference that they can get away with it."
While traffic volume diminished significantly as the pandemic raged and stay-at-home orders kicked in, Hanson said, "I think there was also a significant misperception by many drivers that, because of everything law enforcement was dealing with during the pandemic and then in the time since then, that many drivers felt: 'Heck, I can do this, because the cops aren't going to do anything.' Well, nothing could be farther from the truth."
The number of excessive speeding violations has waned from last year's peak, but Hanson said, "We're still not back anywhere near where we were pre-pandemic. We still have troopers, officers and deputies who are arriving at a crash scene, and they're looking at a mangled pile of metal, and you can't even tell what kind of car it was, because of what happened to it due to extreme speed.
"As a consequence, we are going to do some things to try to bring some sanity back to the highways and the roadways of Minnesota," Hanson said, describing heightened speed limit enforcement efforts.
Bad driving behavior during the pandemic has been recognized as a widespread phenomenon, according to Hanson, who said he has talked to many colleagues across the nation.
"All of us are seeing a significant increase in these risk-taking behaviors — extreme speed, extreme aggressive driving. We're seeing an increase in the number of people who are killed in motor vehicle crashes because they're not using seat belts," he said.
Hanson suggested that some of problem behaviors may be fueled by people's frustrations with the pandemic, too, saying: "Many of us have been staying at home, we're all cooped up, and the automobile in the American culture has always been our key to freedom."
He related one anecdote that could provide a bit of insight into the situation. An officer stopped a man driving about 110 mph in a 55 mph zone in Elk River. "And when he asked him: 'Well, what are you doing?' The guy simply said, 'I'm out for a drive. I needed to get out.' So, I'm not a sociologist. I'm not a psychiatrist. But I think there are going to be a lot of really interesting studies that will come out in the future that look at how we, as humans, dealt with this pandemic situation."
The penalties for excessive speeding can be considerable. While fines vary by county, drivers typically pay more than $110 for a citation documenting a speed of 10 mph over the limit or double that for a 20 mph exceedance. Anyone clocked at 100 mph or more could lose their driver's license for six months, and an offending individual's insurance costs are likely to soar, as well.
"As much as I'd like to be able to tell you that all of our law enforcement partners working together can fix this, if you talk to any cop out there, they will tell you: There's no way we can enforce our way out of what we're seeing on our roads right now. It's just too widespread and it's too critical. So, really, the other part of our campaign is education and outreach," he said.
Margaret Anderson Kelliher, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, urged people to think not just of their own welfare but the safety of others on the road, recognizing every driver is someone's family member or loved one.
"We need folks to think about the people they love when they're out there driving," she said.