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Alexandria woman receives state award for making roads safer in 'Toward Zero Deaths' campaign

Crystal Hoepner was given the Education Star Award during a virtual presentation Monday, Oct. 18, during the 2021 Toward Zero Deaths state conference.

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An Alexandria woman is among those being recognized by the Minnesota departments of health, public safety and transportation with Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Awards.

Crystal Hoepner was given the Education Star Award during a virtual presentation Monday, Oct. 18, during the 2021 TZD state conference.

"I am honored and was really shocked to be nominated. It's a pretty high honor," said Hoepner, who works as the Grant and Douglas County TZD Safe Roads Coalition coordinator.

The TZD Awards are presented annually to recognize significant achievements that help save lives and reduce life-changing injuries on Minnesota roads. Road fatalities have decreased by 40 percent since the TZD program began in 2003.

"My job is to coordinate a coalition in each Douglas and Grant County of professionals who work in traffic safety, so law enforcement, EMS, county highway, state, and other people in the community who have a vested interest in traffic safety," Hoepner said.

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The coalition's goal is to promote traffic safety measures.

"A lot of it is related to contributing factors to crashes, so we analyze our crash data. Locally and throughout the state the top four are speed, impairment, unbelted and inattention, or distracted driving," Hoepner said.

A health educator with Horizon Public Health, Hoepner uses social media messaging to educate drivers and organizes events at local schools, health fairs and other public venues.

She was instrumental in "Rural Safety Day" at the 2019 Grant County fair, which addressed topics such as agriculture equipment, bicycle and seat belt safety, and upon her recommendation, the event will be held annually.

"The goal of TZD is to work collaboratively with education, and that includes public health, schools and media, general education for the community," Hoepner said. "We do a lot of community education during heightened enforcement periods. For example, in late August and over Labor Day, it was DWI enforcement, and then this past September it was child passenger safety and seat belts.

"The research says that to change behaviors it's good to tie education in with enforcement so people know, 'I might get a ticket,' or 'I might get pulled over.' Hopefully we can impact their behavior to make the right choices when they're getting behind the wheel," she said.

Hoepner said that when TZD started in 2003, there was a high of 655 people who had died on Minnesota roadways.

"The program started with the goal to reduce serious injury and fatal crashes," she said. "When we reached our lowest was in 2017, and that was 357 lives were lost, so a 45% decrease. From a prevention standpoint, that's huge, to see the successes that all the different programming has helped, along with improvements in motor vehicle safety features, too."

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Unfortunately, Hoepner said that this year Douglas County and the state as a whole is seeing some of the highest numbers of fatalities in the past five years.

"We kind of had been at a plateau as a state, between 360 and 380 number of lives lost each year, and as of today, I think there's 383, and it's only October," she said. "We know as far as driving to and from work and school, it's one of the most dangerous things people will do each day. That's why it's an important reason, not only for public health, but the other agencies to focus on preventing crashes."

People are receptive to the message of safe driving, though, especially when there are policy changes, Hoepner said.

"When we had the hands-free law go into place, that really helped in behavior change, and attitudes of people, too. It takes a while to change people's behavior," she said.

However, some people's behavior just doesn't change. Hoepner said that although Minnesota has had a primary seat belt law for quite a few years, unbelted crashes are still one of the top contributors to serious injuries and fatalities.

"It's a constant battle, I think," she said. "But then again, on the flipside, when we do surveys, we have a seat belt rate statewide where 97% wear their seat belts. It's lower in rural Minnesota, more like 83%. So we know that people are making good choices, but when we see crashes, unfortunately the ones that become fatal, it's the people who were distracted or are unbelted."

For more information, visit https://www.minnesotatzd.org /.

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