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County asks state to study speed on Thompson Road after fatal crash

Long Lake Township Board Chairman Dave Johnson asked the county to take a closer look at Thompson Road, otherwise known as County Road 148, in a bid to increase safety on that roadway and others within the township boundaries.

Emergency vehicles at a crash site.
Emergency vehicles are parked on a hill Monday, June 13, 2022, on Thompson Road south of Brainerd, responding to a fatal crash where a pickup truck struck a horse and the woman walking it on the shoulder.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
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BRAINERD — Crow Wing County asked the state to conduct a speed study on Thompson Road after a crash killed a 33-year-old woman walking her horse on the road’s shoulder in mid-June.

County Engineer Tim Bray told commissioners during their Tuesday, June 28, meeting that such a request is common from local jurisdictions, whether prompted by a tragedy or feelings a speed limit is set too high in a particular environment. In this case, Long Lake Township Board Chairman Dave Johnson asked the county to take a closer look at Thompson Road, otherwise known as County Road 148, in a bid to increase safety on that roadway and others within the township boundaries.

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“Many of our residents are related to each other or feel like family,” Johnson wrote in a June 22 letter. “The death of a pedestrian on a road in our township brings home the fragility of life.”

Sheriff Scott Goddard speaks at a desk
Sheriff Scott Goddard discusses his office's investigation into a fatal pedestrian crash on Thompson Road during the Tuesday, June 28, 2022, Crow Wing County Board meeting.
Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Sheriff Scott Goddard said the June 13 crash killing Katie Marie Yaunick and her horse remains under investigation and the factors leading to the crash are still being determined. The driver of the pickup truck, 44-year-old Matthew Richard Dircks of Brainerd, was traveling east on the road while Yaunick was walking west on the same side. Dircks told law enforcement he was on his way home at the time. No charges have been filed in the fatal incident.

“I spoke to Dave prior to the letter coming in and I actually encouraged him to write a letter … to help bring light to this, you know — the tragedy that we saw involving local people in our community,” Goddard said. “Not that it would make it any less impactful if it was a visiting person, but it’s home. It’s one of our own people here.”

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Goddard noted when an area seems prone to crashes, recognizing that can lead to improvements in infrastructure. He pointed to the intersection of Wise and Beaver Dam roads in Brainerd, which recently reopened with a new roundabout in place of the curved T-intersection previously at the site.

“That was a constant crash area for us,” Goddard said.

Bray said the county highway department, along with law enforcement officials and emergency medical services personnel, take crashes seriously. As these groups and others are part of the Crow Wing County Passenger Safety Coalition, Bray said preventing needless deaths is a priority.

“They gather information first and then look at the causes of these and see if they’re preventable from our perspective — an engineering perspective — to see if there’s something going on that we may not be aware of that contributed to a crash or fatality,” Bray said. “And this one is no different.”

County Engineer Tim Bray speaks during a County Board meeting.
Crow Wing County Engineer Tim Bray talks about evaluating roadways for possible engineering concerns in the wake of serious or fatal crashes during the Tuesday, June 28, 2022, County Board meeting.
Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Bray said he’s visited the site of the Thompson Road crash on multiple occasions, most recently on Monday.

“We look at things like no passing zones, what we call sight distance — if you can see over the crest of the curves and things like that — and other configurations of the road,” Bray said. “In my initial assessment, it’s not obvious from our perspective that it was a road factor. That’s initial. Now, we haven’t seen police reports and things like that that may shed some light on things that we will look at further.”

Bray said he thinks a speed study of Thompson Road is a good idea, citing the narrowness of the roadway as well as the potential for an environment encouraging people to travel at higher speeds. The current speed limit is 55 mph.

Commissioner Paul Koering, who represents Long Lake Township on the County Board, said he knows from personal experience how much a smooth roadway can contribute to driving faster than intended.

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“I will say that you can really get some speed up on those really smooth roads and you don’t even really notice that,” Koering said. “I don’t know what happened in this accident. And I’m glad we’re looking into it. … I just know that people are really sad. I mean, they’ve lost a beautiful girl in their neighborhood and they’re just — they’re really, really concerned.”

A map shows Thompson Road in relation to Brainerd.
Thompson Road is southeast of Brainerd.
Contributed / Google Maps

In his letter to the county, Johnson included Thiesse Road, or County Road 118, as part of his request for a deeper look.

“While Thiesse Road has wider shoulders, they are not paved, and Thompson Road has narrow shoulders. Both roads are used by motorists, pedestrians, ATVs and cyclists. The speeds on Thompson seem to be excessive based on anecdotal reports,” Johnson wrote. “We do not know if posting speed signs or radar feedback signs would help slow down drivers, but maybe they could be tried. We would appreciate any actions that can help save lives or decrease property damage.

“ … We hope that the loss of Katie Yaunick can move us in a positive way to be safer. Freight Waves showed the average vehicle trip length was 9.9 miles in 2021. Driving at an average speed of 70 mph vs 50 mph saves 3.4 minutes. Are 3.4 minutes’ worth a life?”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

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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