Nancy Edmonds Hanson
As the weather warms up and the call of the highway grows irresistible, Sgt. Jesse Grabow has a word of advice that could very well save your life: “Don’t outdrive your common sense.”
The Barnesville-based state trooper has been the face of the Minnesota State Patrol in the northwestern third of Minnesota half of his 20 years in uniform. During that time, he has watched annual traffic fatalities fall statewide from more than 600 to just under 400 – an improvement he credits to enforcement, education, engineering (of roads) and emergency medical services.
“I believe we’re making progress,” he says of the downward trend. “Minnesota is one of the most active states in terms of traffic safety. But even one death is one too many.”
Alcohol, he says, has been a problem since there were motor vehicles and highways. It’s one of the two biggest factors cited by State Patrol statistics as involved in fatal crashes, with 121 of 2020’s 397 deaths involving driving under the influence. The second cause, excessive speed, is blamed for 120; and another 103 due to unbelted drivers and passengers.
It’s no wonder. While North Dakota is the worst state in the country for percentage of drivers with a DUI (5.17%), drivers with an accident (12.4%) and adults reporting excessive drinking (24.9%), Minnesota isn’t far behind. Ranking sixth, its numbers in the three categories are 3.83%, 11.38% and 20.5%, according to Insurify.com, an insurance website.
The state is a national leader in trying to combat the problem. In 2005, it became the first to lower its legal blood-alcohol concentration to .08%. It passed its first seatbelt law in 1986; it became a primary offense – one for which a driver can be stopped and charged – in 2009.
Minnesota has also led the way in restricting young drivers to one non-family passenger and barring them from traveling from midnight to 5 a.m. until they turn 18. It’s not a primary offense, he points out; the restrictions only come up if the driver is stopped for another violation.
The most recent step to reduce accidents was passage of the distracted driving law two years ago, when the Legislature voted to ban cellphone use while driving except when it’s hands-free.
“Distracted driving is an epidemic,” he says. “Anything can become a distraction to drivers. Despite knowing some behaviors like cellphone use are illegal and more importantly, unsafe, so many drivers, young and old, are still doing it. They’re just glued to those phones.
“You may try to rationalize it as ‘multi-tasking,’ but you’re not doing the most important thing very well,” he adds. “That can have life-changing consequences. We know how to prevent what happens next – but are we smart enough to do it?”
He continues, “We’re not going to enforce our way out of this. We’re out there, and we do extra enforcement around holidays and during the summer when alcohol-related crashes peak. There’s something about those clear, sunny days that lulls drivers into a false sense of security.”
Education, however, remains the most promising tool. Grabow speaks to adults as well as high schoolers, urging responsibility and caution: “Remember, most of us are smart, safe drivers, but we still must share the roadways with other people who are making bad choices.”
As the patrol’s public information officer for northwestern Minnesota, the trooper is its public face for residents over a vast area. Within a day or two, you may hear him being interviewed by radio stations from Fargo-Moorhead to St. Cloud and from Ortonville to Bemidji and Roseau. He writes a weekly column, “Ask a Trooper,” that appears in 95 newspapers and publications throughout the region, including the Moorhead Extra. He’s the voice of the State Patrol on Twitter, where his handle is @MSPPIO_NW.
In that role, he fields all kinds of questions from the public: Which crash injuries are deemed life-threatening? What is the law that governs fog lights and oncoming cars? Is it legal to have an open can of beer in the car if you hold it out the window? (No.) How long do I have to fix a broken taillight? If a person hits a deer, is it legal to eat it? (Yes.) And how do you join the State Patrol?
For Grabow, that last question is an easy one. His grandfather and father were both members of the Minnesota State Patrol, with Arlo Grabow enlisting in 1952 and Jeff Grabow in 1990. There wasn’t a lot of doubt which way he’d go after graduating from Barnesville High School in 1995, though he did toss around the idea of teaching and coaching. Instead, he studied criminal justice at Alexandria Technical College. He’d submitted his application to the patrol even before graduating in 1998; while it worked its way through the troopers’ lengthy hiring process, he served for a time in Pelican Rapids.
But he didn’t completely dismiss his alternate dream. A wrestler himself in his high school days, he has long run the youth wrestling program at Barnesville High, where he’s president of the wrestling booster group called the Trojan Takedown Club. All three of his sons – 13, 10 and 8 – have followed in his footsteps. He is cubmaster, too, of the local Cub Scout pack.
“I don’t ever sit around being bored,” he says. “I want to inspire kids. We pay a lot of attention to the bad things, but who do you see helping?”
He shares a quote by Martin Luther King: “’Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
Some of the youngsters he works with in sports and scouting, he points out, may be the next generation of law enforcement. Will his own boys become the fourth generation of Grabows to wear the uniform?
“Oh, boy, that’s a hard one,” he replies with a grin. “I have the feeling one of them might. He wants to do everything that Daddy does … just like me.”