Annie LaMotte and Kaia Bollmann pushed a button and waited for the yellow lights to blink overhead before stepping into the crosswalk on Hwy. 47, the busy four-lane that separates St. Francis Middle School from the busy McDonald’s nearby.
Then, as yellow lights flashed, a vehicle struck the two teenagers while they were crossing the highway last month, seriously injuring the 14-year-old friends and rattling the community.
It was the collision that nearby families said they’ve been dreading for years, describing the Nov. 20 incident as hard to believe but not wholly unexpected.
Now it’s become a rallying cry for change in this northern corner of Anoka County.
“The time to talk is done,” said St. Francis Mayor Steve Feldman. “It’s now time for action.”
An online petition calling for safety changes has amassed more than 11,000 signatures — more people than live in St. Francis, population 7,000.
City and school officials said they have been working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation on short- and long-term fixes for the crossing at Hwy. 47 and Pederson Drive NW., where cars regularly cruise at 50 mph.
Many at a recent rally near the crash site said they would like to see stoplights or a pedestrian bridge replace the crosswalk light. At the middle school entrance, signs affixed to fences also demand action, reading “Build the bridge now!” and “Our kids deserve safe crosswalks.”
“We’re hoping to get something in place sooner rather than later,” said Melissa Barnes, MnDOT’s north area engineer. “We want to make sure we consider the costs and benefits of any solution we put out and make sure it works long-term and that it’s the right solution.”
Barnes said MnDOT is considering a stoplight as an interim fix while they take a closer look at the corridor. The city has applied for $300,000 to help fund a stoplight through the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program, Feldman said.
Residents also are pushing for a lower speed limit. It’s now 50 mph except when children are present, when it drops to 40 mph.
“It’s a horrible crossing,” said Lisa LaMotte of Oak Grove, Annie’s mom. “The cars just fly through there.”
Families describe Hwy. 47 as the busiest road in town and a longtime cause for concern because it’s dotted with schools and houses.
Since 2008 through March of this year, there have been 16 crashes at the Pederson Drive and Hwy. 47 intersection, according to MnDOT. None of those involved pedestrians, but two involved bicyclists.
“It was never a matter of if it was going to happen, it was a matter of when,” Feldman said.
Across the highway from the school sits the McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, a grocery store and other businesses. It’s a favored destination for students after school, drawing teens across Hwy. 47 in search of a quick bite.
LaMotte and Bollmann, both of Oak Grove, had stopped at McDonald’s before show choir practice, grabbing food and a caramel frappé to share as they pushed the crosswalk button to head back.
LaMotte said it wasn’t until they got to the third lane that she saw the headlights.
“I don’t remember being hit,” she said. “I just remember waking up on the road.”
Authorities identified the driver as Daniel Geiger, of Isanti. Investigators don’t believe drugs or alcohol were involved and said Geiger has been cooperating with the investigation.
Both teenagers were taken to the hospital, LaMotte in serious condition and Bollmann in critical. LaMotte, whose injuries included broken bones and a mild concession, spent a week in the hospital before being discharged.
Bollmann remains hospitalized with a fractured skull, broken pelvis, facial fractures and brain swelling, according to her CaringBridge page.
Since the crash, crossing guards have helped ferry students across the four lanes. The district’s superintendent as well as Annie’s dad, Chris LaMotte, have been among the helpers.
“We’ve looked and looked and looked at this,” said Troy Ferguson, superintendent of St. Francis Area Schools. “We can’t wait. We need to get something in there now.”