By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN In his 14 years as a Minnesota State Trooper, Alan Thompson of Winsted has often reflected on his role in preventing tragedies on the road, whether through education or enforcement efforts.
“With this job, you wonder if you ever really saved someone,” he said.
One day, while waiting in line at a Kwik Trip, Thompson got his answer.
“I was in uniform, and a girl came up to me and asked, ‘Are you Al Thompson?’” he recalled.
“You saved my life,” she went on to tell him, explaining that he had given her a ticket for not wearing her seat belt a few months earlier.
About two months after the ticket, the girl was in a rollover crash. The officer at the scene told her that if she hadn’t been wearing her seat belt, she likely wouldn’t have survived.
In 2011, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety reported 368 traffic fatalities in the state the first time since 1944 that there have been fewer than 400 deaths. The department credits enhanced enforcement, education and outreach, engineering, and emergency trauma care to the decline.
“It’s everybody working together,” Thompson said.
In 1980, two years after Thompson graduated from Holy Trinity High School, the number of annual traffic fatalities in the state was much higher, at 863. By 1999 (the year Thompson joined the state patrol), it had been reduced to 626.
MN Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman noted that although significant improvements have been made, there is still a long way to go to reach a goal that’s truly acceptable: zero deaths.
According to Thompson, a huge contributor to traffic crashes is distracted driving.
“There are so many distractions in a car,” he said. “Even passengers can be a distraction. Numerous times, I’ll pull someone over and they’ll say they weren’t paying attention because they were talking to a passenger.”
Cell phones are another common distraction.
“It’s gotten really bad,” Thompson said. “In all actuality, I’d like to see cell phones outlawed in cars.”
For Thompson, it’s hard to see people being careless on the road, because he knows what can happen.
“I see the results things people shouldn’t have to see,” he said.
In 2011, the number of traffic fatalities (368) is divided into several categories: 271 deaths in a motor vehicle, 42 on a motorcycle, 40 pedestrians, five on a bicycle, eight on an all-terrain vehicle, and two involving farm equipment.
Of the 271 in a motor vehicle, only 126 (46 percent) were wearing a seat belt.
Thompson said some people might think they’re only hurting themselves if they don’t buckle up, but that’s not the case.
“That’s a little selfish,” he said, explaining that family, friends, and rescue crews are also impacted.
Speeding is also hazardous, and Thompson has heard just about every excuse from drivers.
One woman, for instance, was clocked going 88 mph in a 65 mph zone. When Thompson pulled her over, he told her she had been speeding.
Her response was, “I know. My false teeth fell out, and I was reaching for them.” Apparently, her foot had pressed down on the gas pedal when she bent down.
“I think that’s the most bizarre one I’ve ever heard,” Thompson said.
In addition to enforcing the law and investigating crashes, Thompson is also active in educational efforts. He trains new and existing troopers, and also presents at drivers’ education classes.
Thompson uses a rollover simulator to show high school students what happens to a human body in a crash, as well as a video created by the state patrol.
One thing parents can do to help young drivers is to set a good example, Thompson said.
“I recently pulled a guy over for not wearing a seat belt, and in the back was a little girl,” Thompson said. “They watch they learn.”
Trooper of the Year
Thompson was honored April 29 as the MN State Trooper of the Year, after being nominated by Lts. Chris Edstrom and Tiffani Nielson.
According to the MN State Patrol, Thompson has “consistently exceeded performance standards,” and is “regarded as a respected resource among the troopers and other agencies he works beside.”