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Crow Wing County Board: More signs, fewer crashes: Data shows safety improvements on county roads

Fewer drivers are hitting the ditch on some of Crow Wing County's highest risk rural roads and curves. Roadway safety projects implemented in Crow Wing County are correlated with a reduction in run-off-the-road crashes, data prepared by the highw...

Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Motorists travel northbound Tuesday on Highway 371 north of Brainerd.
Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Motorists travel northbound Tuesday on Highway 371 north of Brainerd.

Fewer drivers are hitting the ditch on some of Crow Wing County's highest risk rural roads and curves.

Roadway safety projects implemented in Crow Wing County are correlated with a reduction in run-off-the-road crashes, data prepared by the highway department shows. County Engineer Tim Bray and Assistant County Engineer Rob Hall presented statistics to the county board Tuesday at its committee of the whole meeting.

Hall said the figures show locations where the highway department has installed chevron signs and grooved-in pavement markings have experienced crash reductions at a rate higher than the national average.

"We now have data showing we've reduced those types of crashes we were trying to address," Hall said. "Run-off-the-roads are the highest leading crashes to fatalities and incapacitating injuries."

These improvements made to roads were some of the recommendations offered in a county road safety plan prepared in 2010 for each county by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. That analysis found 62 percent of crashes in rural counties were run-off-the-road crashes, which accounted for half of all traffic fatalities.

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Wider fog lines, chevrons show fewer crashes

Grooved-in pavement markings were installed on more than 70 miles of county roads and highways, beginning with those identified as high-risk rural roads in MnDOT's report. The outside edge white markings, or fog lines, are 2 inches wider, are painted with wet reflective paint and are about 1/8-inch below the rest of the pavement. Because they are grooved in, they are not as susceptible to snow plow wear and tear.

A nationwide survey of the impact of these markings returned a range of a 10-45 percent reduction in crashes. In Crow Wing County, crashes have reduced by 58 percent where these were installed, including county highways 11, 17, 19, 29 and 39 and county roads 103, 109, 112 and 168. From 2004-11, these roadways averaged 8.9 run-off-the-road crashes annually. From 2013-15, that number has gone down to 3.7 crashes per year.

The project cost $226,000, 90 percent of which was covered by a federal grant. With the cost savings reaped from not having to repaint the lines over the groove-in markings' five-year lifespan, the project cost the county $8,600 in levy dollars.

The installation of chevron signs was a much more widespread project throughout the county. Chevron signs are the yellow signs with black "V" shapes, or chevrons, which direct traffic around curves. Between 2009 and 2014, 343.1 miles of road were signed. Hall said the highway department went ahead with signing every curve, not just those identified as highest risk.

Before sign installation on curves, 36.8 run-off-the-road crashes occurred each year. After installation, the number has dropped to 24.2 crashes. This represents a 34-percent reduction, higher than the 20-30 percent reduction seen nationwide.

The signs last about 12 years before reflectivity is affected. The total cost of installation was $272,000, with 90 percent again covered by federal dollars. When crashes are reduced by 25 percent, the presentation noted, this represents a 1:8 cost-benefit ratio. Crow Wing County exceeds that reduction rate by nearly 10 percent.

Rural streetlights have little safety impact

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Another recommended safety project implemented in the county was the installation of streetlights at rural intersections. Between 2009-11, 31 intersections were lighted. The intersections selected showed at least 1,000 cars traveling through each leg daily, unless specifically requested by a local partner.

This project was not one in which statistics showed an increase in safety. Each of the three years when lights were installed returned a different result: in 2009, crashes stayed the same, they went down in 2010 but then went up in 2011. Nationally, crashes were reduced by 20 percent when these lights were installed. An unexpected benefit of the streetlights, Hall said, was snow plow operators reported snow and ice removal was faster and safer at these intersections.

Commissioner Paul Koering said he appreciated the streetlight located at an intersection in St. Mathias Township when he lived in that area. He said it gives drivers a warning an intersection is approaching in areas when it is dark.

Commissioner Paul Thiede asked whether the data differentiated between the causes of the crashes, such as if alcohol or distracted driving were factors. Hall said the statistics do not include that distinction.

Bray said enacting the safety improvements recommended by the state improves the county's chances when applying for funds to support the projects. He said using the plan-and the recent county board approval to pay $20,000 toward an updated assessment-has resulted in millions of dollars of savings in improvements to the county road system.

County Highway 3's troubled intersections

Two intersections along County Highway 3 continue to present problems, despite efforts to improve safety, Hall said. The highway's intersection with County Highway 11 in Mission Township and the intersection with County Highway 36 and County Road 103 in Crosslake both saw fatalities within the last year. In each of those crashes, a driver failed to yield to the stop sign and drove through the intersection at a high speed.

At the County Highway 11 intersection, both of the blinking red stop signs were hit within the last month. Hall said it's surprising crashes are continuing to occur there despite the new signs.

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"We thought we had it licked," he said.

Bray said the next step would be the installation of rumble strips ahead of the stop signs. He said although those rumble strips have not been shown to reduce the number of crashes overall, there is evidence they reduce crashes occurring at a right angle. Because of the possible noise pollution associated with rumble strips, Bray said he would discuss the matter with nearby businesses, but he noted he thought if there were concerns, they likely would not outweigh the safety concerns.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said perhaps informing the public of those intersections considered the most dangerous might encourage people to travel them more safely.

Bray hesitated to call them the most dangerous, but noted of the 100 intersections "highest on the radar," neither the County Highway 11 nor the County Highway 36 intersections made the cut. Most were intersections with state highways, he said.

The most common time for crashes

Other interesting data included in the project showed the occurrence of crashes by the day of week, time of day and month of the year-both within Crow Wing County and statewide. According to the statistics, the safest time to drive in the county is 3 a.m., the safest days are Sunday or Wednesday and the safest month is March. The most dangerous time is 4 p.m., Saturday sees the most crashes and January is the most common month for crashes to occur.

Those change slightly when looking at the state as a whole. The least number of crashes occur at 3 and 4 a.m., the safest day is Sunday and the safest month is April. The most crashes happen at 5 p.m., Friday is the most dangerous and the highest percentage of crashes occur in December.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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