The Causes of Crashes

There’s been much discussion about car vs. pedestrian crashes in the Twin Cities and closer-in suburbs. Here is a discussion about one in an exurb and one in a small town. When a crash happens, eventually the investigating agency winds up saying someone french-fried when they should have pizza-ed, assigns blame, the insurance companies and lawyers fight it out in court, and then people try to move on with their lives. However I thought I’d dig a little deeper to introduce talking points on some of the more abstract issues involved.

First a summary of Minnesota statutes that may apply to our situations:

169.21 PEDESTRIAN.

Subd. 2. Rights in absence of signal.

(a) Where traffic-control signals are not in place or in operation, the driver of a vehicle shall stop to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk… No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to yield…

Subd. 3. Crossing between intersections.

(a) Every pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or at an intersection with no marked crosswalk shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway.

(c) Between adjacent intersections at which traffic-control signals are in operation pedestrians shall not cross at any place except in a marked crosswalk.

(d) Notwithstanding the other provisions of this section every driver of a vehicle shall (1) exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicycle or pedestrian upon any roadway

169.14 SPEED LIMITS, ZONES; RADAR.

Subdivision 1. Duty to drive with due care.

No person shall drive a vehicle on a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions. Every driver is responsible for becoming and remaining aware of the actual and potential hazards then existing on the highway and must use due care in operating a vehicle.

169.305 CONTROLLED ACCESS RULES AND PENALTIES

Sub. 1. Entrance and exit; crossover; use regulations; signs; rules.

(c) The commissioner of transportation may by order, and any public authority may by ordinance, with respect to any controlled-access highway under their jurisdictions prohibit or regulate the use of any such highway by pedestrians, bicycles…

With that dryness behind us, lets look at the two situations.

Cannon Falls Crash: US 52 at a former signal

On February 8, 2015, about a half hour after sunset, a 42 year old man from Stewartville climbed a fence and attempted to cross US 52, which was unlit, four lanes, and has a 65 mph speed limit. He was struck by two separate motorists and killed. Exactly why he was crossing the highway here wasn’t explained, but likely he was staying at the hotel and was going to the Subway, liquor store, McDonalds, or truck stop on the other side of the highway.

The pedestrian’s path in red and where he was presumably going in dashes

Direct causes of the crash: While the initial reaction is to say the pedestrian was illegally on the highway, the actual legal situation is more ambiguous. The stretch of US 52 between TH19 and CSAH 24 is indeed a controlled access highway between those two exits only, and there are signs posted prohibiting bicycles and pedestrians from using the ramps. Yet there are no signs on the mainline informing bicycles and pedestrians that they must leave US 52 and take the “through city” route. Furthermore there are signs posted on the ramps leading in the directions that are not controlled access.

“Pedestrians Bicycles Use CSAH 76”

By contrast, the signage on the US 10 bypass at Little Falls is very unambiguous that non-motorized traffic must use the route through the city, and may use the highway except for the bypass. (I asked MnDOT for comment on the legal situation in Cannon Falls, and they promised to thoroughly research a response and get back to me, but they never did). Regardless, since it was not a marked or unmarked crosswalk, the pedestrian clearly failed to yield the right of way to motor vehicles.

Did the two motorists fail to exercise due care? This one is more open to interpretation; I submit no. Over-driving headlights happens at about 45 mph, and by not having night speed limits set at that amount we’ve implied it’s legally permissible to overdrive your headlights.  Assume the motorists were going at the posted speed of 65 mph, and there’s no indication they were not. Even if you’re paying rapt attention to driving there’s little you can do if a pedestrian, whether on two legs or four, is in front of you. I’ve hit a deer at highway speeds after dark and I’m sure a few readers have too.

On a side topic, what does “exercise due care” mean? Do you need to pay rapt attention the entire drive to Rochester or beyond? We know talking on a cell phone is a bad idea, and texting is even illegal, but what about reaching into your fast food bag, or tuning your radio?  What about all the new cars where you have to go into a touch screen menu just to turn the air conditioner down? What about scolding the fighting tweens in the back seat? What about having a few beers or legally prescribed medication but not reaching the level of legal impairment? What about even just sitting back in your seat and relaxing a bit? I have a feeling these kind of issues will never be resolved until self-driving cars make them moot.

Indirect causes of the crash: To what extent did the overall context contribute to the crash? Although traffic volumes now justify a freeway, there’s never been enough money to convert US 52 to a freeway on new alignment, as was done with the interstates. Initially an expressway was thought to be adequate; it wasn’t until around 2000 that the gradual, slow upgrade of the existing route to freeway standards began. This has meant connectivity and local access problems, and no alternative route for bicyclists.

Previously a signalized intersection existed here and a few blocks to the south. There was endless debate about the preferred concept for eliminating them, building a new interchange well to the south allowed more economic development, disrupted fewer existing properties, and tied into the new hospital campus and southeast arterial. A plan for an overpass at the crash site got deferred in the interests of getting the project built with available funding so the road was simply severed even though pedestrians were used to being able to cross there. To say the safer route for pedestrians is a bit long is an understatement, adding well over a mile to the walk.

Road Closed Today

 

Intersection as it existed prior to 2014.

 

Safe alternative route for pedestrians

Now that the issue on US 52 itself is fixed, MnDOT is uninterested in contributing towards building the overpass that’s strictly a local connectivity need and local funding sources have been tapped out to build the interchange and other projects. As an interim “solution” until a bridge can be built, should a “no pedestrians” sign at what was once a legal pedestrian crossing have been installed? Should the entire project not have not been done until there was funding to build the overpass, which would have entailed construction inflation and crash and congestion costs for motorists?

Finally, I mentioned over-driving headlights. Setting a night speed limit of 45 mph is simply not going to happen. Is the policy of not installing street lighting in suburban areas where pedestrians (legally or otherwise) might be on a freeway or expressway a factor? Also, US vehicle lighting standards lag behind the rest of the world.  As a potentially relevant example, European headlights have a sharp cutoff to the left to avoid blinding oncoming drivers while having an upsweep to the right to better see road signs, deer, and pedestrians.

Whatever the causes, we need to find funding to convert US 52 into a full freeway with adequate pedestrian crossing opportunities. The traffic volume on all but perhaps Pine Island to Cannon Falls is way too high to be safely handled by an expressway type facility.

Anoka Crash: US 10 at Verndale Ave

On November 26, 2012 at about 7:30 PM a 16-year old girl, upon finding that she wasn’t actually scheduled to work at the McDonald’s that night, headed back home but was struck by a westbound motorist when she attempted to cross US 10 at Verndale Ave.

Verndale Ave, with the McDonalds she was coming from in the background

 

Fairhaven signalized intersection

 

Pedestrian’s route in red, safer alternative route in grey.

 

Context of the Area

Direct Causes: It appears that, believe it or not, there is legally an unmarked crosswalk there and therefore the pedestrian had the ROW and thus motorists should have yielded to her. Beyond that, since I have no more information I don’t want to speculate as to whether the motorists did not exercise due care or the pedestrian failed to, or both, so lets move on and look at the indirect causes.

Indirect Causes: Once again, we can blame our failure to fund badly needed highway expansion and safety improvements. High speed signalized expressways are dangerous to both motorists and pedestrians and divide the community. (Imagine if Hiawatha had been built in a trench with lids how much better it would function for both the people living nearby and and people in cars). There’s been a long history of car vs. pedestrian crashes on such “should be freeways with grade separated crossings.” On this stretch of road there were four in two months in 2012, and just down the road last week there was a car and pedestrian crash on US 169 in Elk River, where improvements have been talked about for over 15 years. Even signalized intersections are no panacea since they increase congestion costs, rear end crashes for motorists, and two of the fatalities were pedestrians illegally crossing against a “Don’t Walk” light.

Also, there are questions about allowing pedestrians to cross in a place a motorist wouldn’t expect, and putting housing concentrations on highways opposite jobs and commerce. Despite the jersey barriers that were installed in the middle in response to the crash, it appears to still be a legal crossing as a “no pedestrians” sign was never installed. Although the safe route isn’t quite as long as the Cannon Falls example, at the time it involved walking in a ditch on the north side of Highway 10.

As a side note, they are at least fixing this one. In response to a crash in a “carrot and stick” approach, besides the aforementioned barrier they built a MUP so pedestrians don’t need to walk in the ditch to get to the signalized crossing. Now with a Met Council grant there’s finally funding to build an overpass on Fairoak, eliminating a serious congestion problem for motorists and providing a safer way for pedestrians to cross, eliminating Minnesota’s 5th busiest intersection. Elsewhere on the corridor, an at-grade intersection was eliminated at Armstrong giving pedestrians a safer place to cross, and there’s advocacy for further grade separations.

New multiuse path on north side

Crashes aren’t simply who did what at the scene, but involve questions on culture, funding priorities, and having cohesive visions.

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5 Responses to The Causes of Crashes

  1. Shawn October 5, 2017 at 8:37 am #

    That’s a good point on the preservation of walkability. It would have cost, what, 1 or 2M to build a pedestrian/bike overpass at the US 52 crash location. I think Cannon Falls could have funded that on their own if it really came down to it. In our days of a 40+B state budget, that money is probably available somewhere.

  2. Karen October 5, 2017 at 10:45 am #

    Thanks, this is good overview of the issues.

    Design is critical and it would fix so many things.

    I also notice the pedestrians often don’t seem to realize how invisible they are at night. To them cars seem obvious with headlights. But when they are dark clothing in poorly lit areas, people walking are hard to see even when they are at marked cross walk. All my near misses of peds (where I was surprised by them and had to break – not that I almost hit them) have been at night when I simply didn’t see them even when I was paying attention. They were also near misses because they happened on city streets and I was driving about 25 miles per hour.

    But I have seen pedestrians step right out in front of cars in dark areas at night with the seeming assumption drivers will see them like they would during the day.

    • Justin Doescher October 5, 2017 at 4:48 pm #

      Yeah well, drivers should pay attention.

    • Rosa October 6, 2017 at 11:56 pm #

      I really think that this is a problem car manufacturers need to be required to solve at some point. Because for pedestrians and cyclists, pedestrians are not at all invisible. It’s the combination of windows and interior lights in a car that makes them so difficult to see, and the light levels inside cars just keep getting brighter and brighter.

  3. Allen October 18, 2017 at 4:14 pm #


    , the actual legal situation is more ambiguous.

    Legally ambiguous only matters in court. What matters here is what is humanly and culturally ambiguous Or in this case, quite the opposite. What 42 year old American doesn’t recognize that a fence means stay out and that crossing a freeway on foot is insane?

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