As State Trooper Kristie Sue Hathaway sat in her squad car while investigating a crash on a freeway in Eagan Thursday morning, she glanced in her rear view mirror and saw an F-150 pickup rapidly approaching from behind.
She hoped against hope the driver would see the flashing lights and veer around her and the crash victim whom she had sitting in the back seat of her squad. Then, wham, the pickup driver plowed into the back of her cruiser at an estimated speed of 60 miles per hour.
Fortunately neither Hathaway nor the passenger were seriously injured, but the crash could have been avoided, said Lt. Tiffani Nielsen of the State Patrol. Three other troopers responding to crashes in Minnesota also were hit in the past 24 hours and in all cases driver conduct -- not the treacherous roads caused by a snowstorm - were the biggest contributing factor, Nielson said.
"When drivers are operating their vehicles too fast for the conditions, not driving at speeds reflective of the conditions and not allowing sufficient following distances, we have vehicles off the road... and troopers getting hit," Nielsen said. "Bad habits are not easy to correct on poor weather days. That's why we are seeing an increased number of incidents."
In total, the patrol responded to 855 incidents between 8 a.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. Friday. That included 610 spin outs and 110 crashes with injuries. The four troopers hit included Hathaway and troopers in Brooklyn Center, Virginia, and Marshall.
None of the troopers who were hit sustained serious injury. It was likely a record for the number of troopers hit in a 24-hour period, too, she said.
Hathaway, a four-year member of the patrol, had stopped in the left lane of eastbound I-494 near Pilot Knob Road at 1:47 a.m. Thursday where a car had spun out. She turned on her lights and pulled her squad behind the tow truck that was loading up the damaged car. With the car's driver in the back seat, Hathaway looked back and saw the speeding pickup approaching, headlights getting brighter as the truck got closer. Then she braced for impact.
"I was hoping he'd swerve or decrease speed to make the impact less," Hathaway said during a media briefing Friday with crumpled squad car in the background. "The squad car tells the story. I didn't grasp the impact until seeing it in the daylight. When I took this job, I realized it's not if you are going to get hit, but when. Luckily I was not outside the squad. Had I been outside I would have been walking in front of the squad. Things could have been much worse."
Both Hathaway and the driver of the disabled car were treated at a local hospital and released. Hathaway was expected to return to her job on night patrol Friday.
As for the pickup driver, he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and criminal vehicular operation.
Nielsen reminds drivers to reduce speeds during inclement weather, eliminate distractions, not use alcohol or drugs and pay attention.
"All four crashes were preventable," Nielson said. When the weather is bad, "the margin for error is very very thin, and that is why we are seeing this increased number of incidents. We are lucky we didn't have any troopers [seriously] injured."