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MnDOT studying hazardous street corners in county

This is the direction county employee Laird Hensel was heading when he was involved in a fatal crash on Dec. 3. This intersection, at County Roads 9 and 45, looks northbound from County Road 45. Traffic engineers will issue a report on the spot sometime this spring. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

State transportation engineers are studying a rural Hubbard County intersection where two men, including a county employee, died last month.

The intersection at County Roads 9 and 45 leaves little margin for driver error. Eastbound traffic heading into the intersection comes down an incline on County Road 9. If north- or southbound motorists don't come to a complete stop at the intersection, eastbound traffic must be extra vigilant in coming to an abrupt stop.

That may have been the deadly scenario Dec. 3 when a northbound vehicle driven by county employee Laird Hensel either slid through the intersection, or proceeded forward without seeing an approaching eastbound vehicle coming over the incline on County Road 9. Hensel and a passenger in the approaching vehicle both died at the scene.

The same intersection saw another fatality in 2006, Department of Transportation engineers said last week.

Hubbard County Engineer Dave Olsonawski approached the DOT's district office in Bemidji shortly after the December crash, asking for an evaluation of the intersection and recommendations to make it safer.

"He was struggling with why people aren't stopping there," said DOT traffic engineer Bill Pirkl, characterizing his conversation with Olsonawski.

The science and practice of traffic safety is a complicated one that has come into focus with a slew of accidents along well-known corridors and intersections.

Last summer traffic engineers undertook a third study of the intersection of Highway 71 South and County Road 15 that has particularly concerned citizens and Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers. Traffic counts were also conducted in 2002 and 2005. Recently a three-vehicle crash occurred at that spot. There were no injuries but plenty of vehicle damage.

The County 15 corridor at both ends, on Highway 71 and County Road 6, has seen several accidents last year, including a motorcyclist killed at County Road 6 last spring. Just before Christmas another injury accident took place at that same intersection.

The Enterprise has spent the past six months requesting and reviewing traffic data in the county compiled by both the Department of Public Safety and DOT.

The County Roads 6 and 15 intersection was not listed among the top 130 most dangerous areas compiled by DOT, but will no doubt be elevated in importance due to the fatal crash. So will the intersection where Hensel died.

DPS issues an annual "causation report" at the end of each year. That agency generally doesn't track where in the county each crash occurred. It lists the number of crashes per county, per state and per city in the metro areas.

From 2004 to 2009, 28 people have died on Hubbard County roads; 58 received serious injuries, according to DPS. In 2009, six deaths occurred. That was the highest number since 2004. In 2008, three people died; only two received serious injuries.

DOT focuses almost exclusively on causation and dollar costs with its numbers. The dangerousness of an intersection is measured in "crash costs," a figure that uses a complicated mix of human deaths and injury costs, property damage and other factors such as types of crashes, weather and road conditions to arrive at a dollar figure.

"Ranking is cost only," said Pirkl of the intersections getting top priority.

"One fatality can drive up the cost," added assistant traffic engineer Michelle Rognerud.

A single fatality adds $780,000 to the cost; a serious injury adds $390,000; a minor injury adds $121,000; a possible or unknown injury adds $75,000; a property damage only crash adds $12,000. Those costs are then divided by the number of years, usually three, that go into the DOT calculation.

DOT typically takes a five-year snapshot to get trends at problematic intersections. "We will look at a spike, too," Rognerud said. "We want to make sure there's no anomaly."

The latest DOT study, using a three-year snapshot from 2006 to 2008, the latest year for which numbers are available, indicates the most dangerous intersection in Hubbard County is on U.S. Highway 2 and County Road 45, near the Potlatch plant. County roads that receive state funds are designated as County State Aid Highways, or CSAH 45, in this case. That intersection is ranked sixth overall in the district, which encompasses the northwest region of the state. Its crash cost was assessed at $337,333. One person died in a crash there.

The Highway 71 and County Road 15 intersection ranks 16th in the county; 136th in the district for crash costs. The intersection at County Roads 9 and 45 did not make the list, but will no doubt top it in 2009 due to the two deaths, single injury and property damage the accident caused, including a two-hour power outage when one or both vehicles mowed over a utility box.

Likewise, the County Roads 6 and 15 intersection was not on the DOT list, but likely will be near the top in 2009, factoring in the motorcyclist's death and the injury accident in late December.

Most of the dangerous intersections in Hubbard County are on major highways, but that bucks a national trend. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that in 2008, 58 percent of the nation's fatalities occurred on rural roads. Why? People drive faster on rural roads.

"The higher the speed, the higher the severity of the accidents," Pirkl agreed.

Engineers routinely check accident reports to determine causation and exact locations of the crashes.

Rognerud said the 2006 crash at County Roads 45 and 6 was known to engineers but did not show up on accident reports because of the way it was coded. Improper and inconsistent coding can skew statistics, so that's why the actual reports are viewed before the department can draw any safety conclusions.

Next week read about the solutions engineers use for controlling traffic at dangerous intersections and the criteria they follow.a

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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