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County examines fatal, serious injury crashes

With every serious crash comes a story, a tragedy.

"How many people have to die before we do something?" said Washington County Public Works Director Don Theisen, referring to a question that county officials often hear from residents.

The county is partnering with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to use federal dollars for proactive safety measures on county highways, including Woodbury's busiest roads.

MnDOT is breaking down data for all 87 counties as a component of its overall strategic safety plan, with the intent to reduce systemwide crash rates that recognize a large percentage of fatal and serious injury crashes occur on county roads not state highways.

"After looking at all the miles and intersections and curves, the severe crashes are scattered," said Howard Preston of the consulting firm CH2M Hill, Inc., who studied the data.

The study that was done between 2006 and 2010 points to at-risk factors in Washington County being young drivers under 21, unbelted occupants, motorcycle crashes, road departure and intersection crashes.

Specifically, 26 percent of the total fatal and serious injury crashes in the county at that time involved young drivers, while 51 percent were intersection crashes, according to the study.

Signalized intersections were not spared of serious crashes either, the study states, with 29 percent of all 574 crashes in Washington and Dakota counties reported at those types of intersections.

"The notion that signals are a safety device, it is a myth, it's not true at all," Preston said.

To resolve crashes at such intersections, he recommends "Confirmation Lights for Red Light Enforcement."

The $1,000 expense is not a camera, rather a light that goes off when a driver runs a red light, alerting law enforcement monitoring the intersection.

"It only takes one officer to know when somebody is running a red light," Preston said.

Woodbury Public Safety Director Lee Vague said he would support a joint partnership with the county to target problem areas in the city.

"We know that red light runners are a danger," he said. "And we know that if somebody violates that particular traffic light, it's very prone to crashes, injury-type of crashes."

The report also recommends installing countdown timers for pedestrian crosswalks, which Vague said can be a problem area in Woodbury.

"Typically most of the violations that we have seen come back to the drivers of vehicles that are generally distracted drivers," he said. "People that are coming up to intersections, up to crosswalks, are not paying attention."

Although many of Washington County roads are paved and don't fall under the category of being rural, gravel roads, they were identified as a risk since drivers pay less attention there as well.

And with a number of "visual traps," Preston said, "curves are a particularly dangerous location on our roads."

The study identified a number of "black spot" locations that should be on the county's priority list in order to reduce the number of serious and injury crashes.

Although Valley Creek Road, Radio Drive, Woodbury Drive and Manning Avenue were highlighted as top priorities, county engineers said some of the problems have been resolved as part of recent construction projects.

Transportation engineer Joe Gustafson said the county would be able to use the funds for other projects left on the list, as well as educational efforts to improve safety of young and unbelted drivers.

If the county were to implement all the recommended suggestions, projects would cost nearly $8 million.

Each of the projects is an affordable way to address issues across the entire county, Gustafson said, versus investing in one particular area with costly upgrades like roundabouts.

"This is a low cost strategy you can deploy systemwide," he said. "We can't make a good dent in crash rates by spending all our money in one spot."

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.