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Engineers challenged by dangerous county roads

Emergency personnel tended to an injured woman in May 2009 as a medical helicopter lands to transport her to a Twin Cities hospital. One man died in this crash on County Road 9 east of Nary in the northeastern section of Hubbard County. (Enterprise photo)1 / 2
(1) Crash involved at least one driver or motorcycle rider with a BAC of .08 or above; (2) Crash involved only one vehicle in transport; (3) Crash involved at least one large truck; (4) Crash involved at least one vehicle speeding; (5) Crash involved at least one vehicle that rolled over; (6) Crash involved at least one vehicle that departed the roadway (FHWA definition); (7) Crash occured within an intersection or within the approach to an intersection. A fatality can be in more than one category. There...2 / 2

Hubbard County doesn't have multi-lane interstate highways, clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic and multi-vehicle pileups.

It has something much more lethal: two-lane roadways that are more hazardous to human life than any interstate.

And Hubbard County Road 9 could well be the deadliest.

A Road Safety Audit Report performed for Hubbard County and released in January 2008 indicated 70 percent of Minnesota fatal crashes occurred on rural roadways.

"For this reason, the Hubbard County Public Works Department chose to seek additional resources and assistance in identifying and addressing highway safety issues," the report stated.

The lengthy stretch of County Road 9, which bisects the northern part of the county, saw two fatalities and numerous injuries during the audit study's analysis of crash data between 2002 and 2006.

The Enterprise has extended that analysis through last year. Four more people have died on County Road 9 since 2006, three in 2009.

"I don't know if I read that into the report," Olsonawski said of the highway's growing death toll.

"It's very well used," he said. "You have people going back and forth. It takes them to the casinos and everything else. Our road comes out north of Itasca State Park."

On many of the intersections identified as problem areas in the Safety Audit report, a $121,000 state grant provided the funds for lighting at 14 intersections.

Other problematic intersections received new stop signs, larger warning signs, dual stop signs, rumble strips and reflective markings to make them more visible.

"We probably had done all that even before they finished their report," Olsonawski said.

Dying on rural roads

The focus on rural road safety is not just Hubbard County's. It's a national push. Twenty-three percent of the population lives in rural areas, yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted across the U.S. in 2008, 56 percent of traffic deaths occurred in rural areas, where people tend to drive faster and roads are less well engineered.

Rural drivers also tend to be more intoxicated, tend to wear their seat belts less than the national averages and emergency help is slower in coming, contributing to those death rates.

In Hubbard County, the factors causing fatal and injury accidents are not so easily cured. The Safety Audit identified Hubbard County as having a higher than normal rate of crashes on Fridays and Saturdays - 35 percent - and highest possible rankings for crashes caused by impaired drivers, head-on crashes and accidents occurring when drivers crossed the median and accidents caused by drivers running off the roadway.

"We can't drive the cars for them," Olsonawski said. "A lot of it is driver habit and driver error. We try and build the roads as safe as we can but basically you can't drive the car for them.

"If they're there texting or have been drinking or doing something they shouldn't be doing when they're driving instead of paying attention, that's when things happen, " he added.

One troublesome spot

The intersection at U.S. Highway 71 and County Road 15 seems to draw the most citizen ire.

It has been the subject of three traffic count surveys - and numerous accidents and citizen complaints. Three accidents were noted in the audit report. Many more have occurred since then, including one in 2009 that caused minor injuries and a three-car non-injury pileup earlier this year.

The audit report's recommendation: "Request MNDOT to investigate warrants for installation of a traffic signal at this intersection."

That was two years ago.

When the state surveyed accidents at state intersections, from 2006 to 2008, the intersection didn't even surface on its crash radar.

"Warrants" are highway lingo for indicators of the need for traffic control. And stoplights are controversial.

DOT recently faced heated opposition in Bemidji with the suggestion of installing a traffic signal near the new Menard's store on a service road off U.S. Highway 2.

"People hate signals," admitted Department of Transportation traffic engineer Bill Pirkl. "But we're not going to put a signal out if it's not warranted."

For instance, he hypothesizes, if an accident is caused by a driver's failure to yield the right-of-way, "would a signal correct this type of behavior?"

Intersection control change must be warranted, or "there will be an accident and we will be on the liability end," he said. DOT not only looks at traffic signals from a liability perspective, but from a consistency angle, too.

Highway 71 was rehabbed last summer, but it was not possible to put turning lanes at the County 15 intersection because of the service road that runs parallel to the southbound lane in that area.

"We were out of right-of-way," said DOT assistant traffic engineer Michelle Rognerud.

"If growth continues as it has, the intersection may warrant a traffic signal in five years," she added.

To stop(light) or not

"Traffic signals are not used as an accident prevention measure," said assistant Hubbard County engineer Jed Nordin. "They have found that traffic signals do not necessarily decrease accidents."

Pirkl agrees and cites the case of a stoplight installed on Hannah Avenue and Highway 197 in Bemidji.

"We put the signal there and within 24 hours we had a fatality," he said.

But the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices indicates traffic signals "reduce the frequency and severity of certain types of crashes, especially right-angle collisions."

The Highway 71 corridor is slated for a makeover sometime between 2015 and 2019, said DOT district planning engineer Joe McKinnon. At that time, state, county and city officials will brainstorm ideas to improve traffic flow and safety.

Whether a stoplight is a panacea for public safety remains unknown.

But Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers doesn't want someone to die at the intersection of Highway 71 and County Road 15 so the county and state can learn the answer.

Sarah Smith

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

(218) 732-3364