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Talking Points

Admit it, you've found youself grumbling about how police handle their jobs on the roadways today. In our memories, things were different back in the "good ol' days."

So what if you were standing a little heavy on the gas pedal. So what if you stopped for a couple beers at the saloon before the drive home from work. So what if you didn't wear your seat belt.

We all seem to selectively recall that police back then would issue a stern warning and send us on our way. And what's with the fines now? You need a second mortgage to pay off a speeding ticket.

Out of the other sides of our mouths, however, we complain about those dang kids and their phones, talking and texting and not paying attention to the road. And nail those chronic speeders and drunk drivers already, before they kill one of us.

Thankfully, public safety officials and lawmakers have a lot of evidence that the "good ol' days" weren't all that good. Back then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the state's traffic death toll was routinely 700, 800, even more than 1,000 people per year. The populace was outraged by the carn- age on state roadways and demanded that something be done.

And public safety, lawmakers and the cops did so something about it.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety released statistics on Thursday showing that, based on fatalities, 2009 was the safest year on state roadways since 1944. Traffic deaths last year were down 8 percent over 2008.

Last year, 421 traffic deaths were reported. That's more than 200 fewer than were reported on state roads in 2000.

The state's Toward Zero Deaths initiative has a goal of fewer than 400 annual fatalities by the end of this year. It's a possibility: Almost halfway through 2010, there have been 153 traffic deaths in Minnesota, which is nine fewer deaths than this time last year.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion said that increased road safety is a result of strong laws and traffic safety programs.

The department notes that in 2005, the legal alcohol concentration limit was lowered to 0.08. In 2006, new teen drivers couldn't use mobile phones in vehicles.

Driver's licensing laws were toughened in 2008, along with bans on texting, emailing and accessing the Web from mobile devices. This year, lawmakers enacted primary seat belt and booster seat laws, and in about a year, some drivers with impaired drinking records will be required to provide clean breath samples before the ignition on their vehicle will be unlocked.

There are other reasons, too: cable median barriers, improved emergency response times and the enforcement and education campaigns appear to be making a difference. Public safety officials believe unemployment and gas prices kept some people out of their cars and kept others driving at lower speeds.

However, the 56.9 billion vehicle miles traveled in Minnesota in 2009 were just one percent lower than the 57.3 billion miles in 2008.

The progress has been impressive. The state's 141 alcohol-related deaths in 2009 were an all-time low, and the number of DWI arrests last year were 9 percent lower than in 2008. Motorcycle deaths also fell to 53 in 2009, down from 72 in 2008.

There is work to be done, however.

There were 35 teen driver deaths in 2009, compared to 31 in 2008. But, considering there were 65 teen deaths in 2007, the trend is encouraging.

There also were 41 pedestrian deaths in 2009, up significantly from the 25 killed in 2008. Not surprisingly, of the 41 pedestrians killed, 33 had blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher.