As part of an occasional series of posts on looking at the causes of crashes, here’s an investigation of one that occurred in the town of Waseca. (See also “The Causes of Crashes and Tesla’s Self-Driving Car Euphoria Gets Jolted. Although my intent in this series is not to come across as “victim blaming”, in order to look at the complete circumstances we need to look at who did what and who should have done what as well as engineering and other factors, in order to arrive at possible solutions to prevent future occurrences. In adddition to engineering and human factors, this one was well publicized and resulted in interesting litigation.
US 14 is a major east-west highway across the southern portion of the state. It’s always been an important road, dating back to the auto trail days of being the “Black and Yellow Trail”. It’s been a long term goal to upgrade US 14 from New Ulm to Rochester to a four lane expressway or freeway, more for economic growth and safety than congestion relief. But unlike the interstates there was not funding and political will to build it all at once. As a result it’s gotten upgraded in bits an pieces over many decades as scraps of funding and political will were found here and there.
Prior to 2006, the intersection of US 14 and County Road 27 just west of Waseca was just another minor country intersection with a stop sign for traffic on the minor road. But then a freeway section of US 14 from Janesville to Highway 13 opened. Through traffic was diverted off the expressway onto County 27 back to the old road coming in from the south. The road to the north had always been a locally known bypass from the northern edge of Waseca to Mankato. Due to the amount of through traffic now turning here, a traffic signal was installed. With the question of when funding subsequent phases would happen, the signal was built to permanent, 30 year standards rather than a temporary signal mounted on utility poles.
Then just six years later additional “popup” funding was found and in 2012 US 14 was completed from Waseca to Owatonna. Upon opening the stretch of freeway, the old road, still temporarily under the jurisdiction of Mn/DOT, became known as “Old Highway 14”. As the location no longer warranted a traffic signal, the signal was placed into red flash making it a four way stop, then the signal was removed entirely and replaced with conventional stop signs. Notable there was no “All Way” plaque on the stop sign, a Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) violation. Minnesota MUTCD Chapter 2B.05:
At intersections where all approaches are controlled by STOP signs…, an ALL WAY supplemental plaque (R1-3P) shall be mounted below each STOP sign. The ALL WAY plaque… shall have a white legend and border on a red background.
The MUTCD has very specific meanings to helping verbs. “May” is optional. “Should” is a very strong suggestion and there’d better be a very good reasons for deviations. “Shall” is an absolute requirement, no exceptions for any reason whatsoever. Immediately it was noticed that traffic on Old 14 was starting to run the stop sign, and the county requested it be removed to return it to the old configuration. There was no equipment immediately available to remove the painted stop bar on Old 14, but it was not a requirement to remove it immediately. So the engineer just ordered the stop signs removed, viewing the hazard posed by drivers running a stop sign was greater than leaving a stop bar painted for a few days. The engineer could have, but was not required to, and did not have installed a permanent “Cross traffic does not stop” or a temporary” Traffic control change ahead” signs on the cross road to alert drivers to a change of conditions.
Fred Statz, age 25, was well known in the area. After being a defensive linesman on the Minnesota State University- Mankato football team he had proven himself as an assistant coach the the Waseca High School football team. Said head coach Brad Wendlan
“He was a natural, and that’s what make it so devastating. … As a young coach he was on his way to positively affect hundreds of kids, thousands of kids, in a life-changing way. “All that’s been taken away. It’s heartbreaking.”
After attending a football banquet the night of Nov 12, 2012, Statz took the unofficial bypass heading towards his home in North Mankato. Arriving southbound at the now unlit intersection after dark the only clue things were different for Statz would have been if he had noticed the missing signs for US 14; the stop bar was still there and there was no change to the signs on 110th Street. Regardless, Statz was expected to behave as encountering any other 2-way stop sign without taking into account what he knew was there before or that there was a now officially meaningless stop bar for Old 14. Statz likely stopped, then proceeded expecting a westbound semi driven by Anthony Simon of Braman, OK to also stop. With no stop sign Simon would have expected Statz to yield so he was not preparing to stop. When Statz proceeded he attempted to swerve out of the way but was unable to and struck Statz’s 1998 Mercury Marquis.
Here’s a map of the area. One source says Statz was actually turning right rather than going straight. It doesn’t make any sense to me why he would take the much slower local road to Mankato, but ultimately it doesn’t matter which direction he was intending to head. I’ve shown the logical way to Mankato going straight ahead to the expressway continuing in blue.
Here’s some photos of the area:
With Statz laid to rest that wasn’t the end of the matter, litigation resulted. Under Minnesota case law, agencies and engineers are immune from liability if decisions are either in accordance with the MUTCD or allowed as discretionary by the MUTCD and not done maliciously. Nevertheless the parents, Bill and Kathy Statz, brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the traffic engineer and MnDOT. In response MnDOT then filed a motion for a summary judgement of dismissal of the case based on their immunity. After a May, 2015 hearing, Waseca County District Court Judge Larry Collins decided in favor of MnDOT in a judgment dated Aug. 6, meaning the case would not advance to a jury trial.
The Statzs then appealed to the State of Minnesota Court of Appeals. On May 23, 2016 the court reaffirmed the opinion of the district court, noting
- That the previous setup violated the MUTCD is not relevant since the setup at the time was compliant. In other words a motorist approaching a traffic control device is supposed to behave as a juror in a trial would: make the correct decision based on the information presented and not any prior knowledge.
- Since “the use of warning signs should be kept to the minimum as unnecessary use breeds disrespect for all signs”, and using them was not required, to not use them was discretionary (even if it might have been a very good idea in this particular case).
- Since the requirement is that the stop bars be removed “as soon as practical”, not having them removed in three days was also discretionary.
Therefore the district court decision stood. The Statzs then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Statz’s attorney Kenneth White argued that
“A court has never addressed the application of official immunity to the decision by the state to sign or not sign a road”.
In response assistant attorney general Eric Brown wrote:
“the state appeals court applied ‘clear and established law’ and did not apply any new principles or policies. The court ‘relied on longstanding precedent on vicarious official immunity and its application to MnDOT’s traffic control and signage decisions'”
In early August the Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear the case. With no further avenues to appeal, this terminated the litigation, but there’s still things for us to think about.
Things to Think About
- Under what circumstances should the public be allowed to sue the state or state employees acting in their official capacity?
- Should it be a requirement rather than an option to use “Traffic Control Change Ahead” or “Cross Traffic Does Not Stop” signs in these scenarios? Is there a certain traffic speed and/or volume to require it if we don’t use it everywhere?
- Should it be a requirement that traffic control devices (like the stop bar) that lose their official meaning be removed immediately, instead of “as soon as practical”
- Should we not be completing roads piecemeal, and instead finish them when we have proper funding? What about properly funding badly needed highway safety and expansion projects in a better way than “popup” projects that are not part of regular work plans, but are instead instigated at the local level and area rarely enough to complete a highway, or to build it as nice and safe as we would like?
- If there is a clear MUTCD violation that is not grandfathered in that it could be argued contributed to a crash, like the “blind clearance” interval in several city of Minneapolis signals, could the city be successfully sued?
Obviously Minneapolis need to fix their blind clearance (where a green arrow just disappears without a yellow arrow first) traffic signals, And for good measure they should introducing flashing yellow arrows instead of the much more dangerous to both motorists and pedestrians yield on green. But some of these other questions have no easy answers.