Why Do People Keep Being Killed on This Road?

Here in my hometown, we’ve suffered another tragic death along one of the deadliest stretches of roadway in Central Minnesota: Wise Road. A 61-year-old man was killed, a 48-year-old was injured, and many other lives have been forever altered. This is very sad. I’m so sorry for the family.

Wise Road, along with Pine Beach Road, forms an east-west cross road on the north side of the Brainerd/Baxter region. It’s a high-speed shortcut for people trying to avoid going through town. There have been many horrible collisions along this stretch. People have been killed, others airlifted out, others maimed and taken to the hospital by ambulance. I was involved in one collision back in 2004 in which I totaled my car. I witnessed another a couple years later where the occupants had to be rushed to the hospital.

The reason these horrible incidents occur is quite simple. This stretch of roadway is designed for high-speed travel, yet it is also designed to accommodate the randomness and complexity associated with a city street.

During normal conditions—which exist nearly all the time—it is safe to travel at 65+ miles per hour, in excess of the posted speed. The lanes are extra wide and forgiving, as are the shoulders of the roadway. There is a large clear zone on each side, so there are broad sightlines. This is a high-performance roadway designed for speed. It’s very safe.

Except for the short periods when it is treacherous. There are driveways spaced irregularly along the entire roadway, with cars turning in and out at unpredictable intervals. All the local governments with jurisdiction along the roadway have targeted it for development, and so now among the driveways are cross roads that provide access to subdivisions full of homes. This leads to even more random turning movements.

Here’s the core problem: The wide, safe, forgiving roadway gives drivers a false sense of security. It allows people to comfortably drive at very high speeds, feeling little to no tension or apprehension. Most people will drive this way and never experience any problems. Never.

Yet, every now and then, something predictable yet random happens, and tragedy results. Someone turns without signaling well in advance. Someone pulls out into traffic and disrupts the flow. Someone hits a patch of ice. Someone decides to pass a slow-moving vehicle.

All it takes is a moment of inattention, a fleeting second or two of distraction, and that minor deviation from the predictable becomes the odd situation that everyone saw coming, yet nobody could anticipate.

I have long found our two common reactions to this situation disturbing. The first is to blame the victims, as if they did something that each and every one of us doesn’t do all the time. It’s comforting to think that we would act differently in the same situation, but all the crash research suggests the opposite. These are normal humans acting normally in what is a deceptively high-stakes environment. None of these recent crashes—with the exception of a man on a bicycle killed by an intoxicated woman—involved any clear deviant behavior. It’s random.

The second reaction is to seek an engineering solution, one that would maintain the high-performance nature of the roadway but provide some additional buffer to (provide the illusion that more engineering can) protect us from these random incidents. Things such as more signage, turning lanes, rumble strips, wider clear zones, and the like. This stuff doesn’t make anything safer because it doesn’t get at the underlying problem, but it makes us feel like something has been done.

As stated, the core problem is the false sense of security. And there are only two ways to address this core problem. One is to actually make the sense of security reflect reality. The other is to remove the illusion.

If we were to make this roadway as safe and secure as it feels, we would need to remove the randomness. Not only would we not allow any more development, but we’d take steps to close the driveways and access roads that are there today and redirect that traffic to someplace it could be safely handled at lower speeds. This would solve the problem, but of course, it will never happen. We want the development too badly, and the people living in this area would rather risk random death than experience delays and inconvenience.

If we won’t remove the randomness, then we must get rid of the illusion of safety. In a coarse sense, that means putting things in place that make drivers feel less secure at high speeds, which is the only effective way of compelling them to slow down. From an engineering standpoint, it is the opposite of what we’ve done: we would narrow lanes, narrow shoulders, remove clear zones, and basically make things feel tight and constricted in order to slow down traffic to speeds where collisions are less likely to be fatal. It’s unlikely the design professionals would do this, even if the public accepted the notion that the shortcut to the north would now be as slow as driving through town.

The first option above, in effect, turns a stroad into a road; the second turns it into a street. In both cases, we would have to be clearer with ourselves about what Wise Road is intended to be: a high-speed connection between places, or a platform for local development and activity. Neither set of changes, however, seems likely to come to pass.

The perceived economic benefits of this design, and the perceived economic benefits of the development this design has induced, are essentially why we’re in this position today. The tragic irony is that this roadway, and the development it induced, are some of the worst financial investments the community has made. Miles and miles of roads and pipes for a small number of homes all spread out from each other. Very expensive, with little financial productivity. Financially, it’s a disaster in the making.

Which makes the fatality rate all the more senseless. As I’ve visited places like this around the country, I’ve found that the only thing that solves a problem like this without a change in design approach is for the road to become so overrun with congestion that slow speeds become an accepted reality.

I doubt that will happen anytime soon here. And so, two weeks before Christmas, I find myself having to accept another senseless death, another feeble response, and the promise that nothing is going to change anytime soon.

For my friends and neighbors: If you have any other alternative, do not drive on Wise Road or Pine Beach Road. For your own safety, take another route.

Top image from Google.