ST. FRANCIS, MINN. – Every December since her daughter died in a car crash near here, Julie Sainio Contreras places a wreath at the flat, country intersection of Isanti County Road 8 and state Hwy. 47.
This year, eight years after the collision that killed 21-year-old Elizabeth Sainio, her mother was heartened to see what she feels is a drastic improvement: an electronic sign with yellow blinking lights that reads, “Traffic Approaching When Flashing.” The signs were turned on early this month.
“I’m glad about the lights to save somebody else’s life,” she said. “That’s important to me.”
Similar warning lights have been dotting rural Minnesota’s countryside in the past year. The state is installing them at nearly 50 rural intersections deemed most at risk for crashes because of sight lines, topography, crash history and other factors.
They are among the latest tools in a large arsenal aimed at combating the state’s traffic deaths, 67 percent of which occur in rural areas holding only 31 percent of the population.
Nationally, Minnesota has emerged as a leader in curbing traffic fatalities, cutting its rate by more than half in an 18-year period starting in 1994. As of 2012, Minnesota ranked second in the nation for the lowest fatality rate, behind only Massachusetts, according to the latest federal data.
But with more than 340 deaths on state roads this year, highway safety advocates say Minnesota can do better.
“It’s a lot of people and all those people touch so many lives,” said state traffic engineer Sue Groth. “That’s only the people who have died, not including people who have been seriously injured whose lives have been changed.”
A group of state traffic, law enforcement, health workers and other officials is working to keep reducing that number with a “Toward Zero Deaths” program.
Rural roads have long presented the biggest problem in the state and nationally. Only 19 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas in 2012, but rural areas accounted for 54 percent of traffic fatalities.
Many rural roads are two-lane, two-way roads without medians. Often, they have narrower shoulders than bigger roads. Utility poles and ditches are sometimes closer to the roadside than on major roads, posing more danger to cars that veer off the roadway.
Drivers on country roads can be lulled into a false sense of safety, too, sometimes driving on straight, wide-open stretches, seeing no cars for miles on end. When there is a crash, it typically takes longer for an ambulance to respond.
Vehicles veering off the road or colliding at intersections are the biggest problems, Groth said. Officials are trying many ways to reduce them.
“We haven’t just focused on one area,” Groth said.
The flashing rural signs were added mostly in 2014, but a few more are scheduled to go in next construction season.
“It’s really taking off in Minnesota, and taking off across the country,” said Ken Hansen, a project manager at MnDOT.
Traffic fatalities in Minnesota decreased from 1.49 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1994 to .69 in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2013, there were 387 fatalities. The goal for 2014 is fewer than 350. Preliminary numbers Monday showed 344 deaths this year.
Safety authorities credit many causes. Publicized seat belt, speeding, drunken-driving and distracted-driving enforcement are now regular campaigns throughout the year, many of them federally funded.
Vehicle safety has improved over the years, and state and county engineers have put in rumble strips to alert drivers who drift outside their lane. They have painted better markings, added light poles at some intersections and added cable barriers between some divided highways.
New teen drivers in Minnesota are now restricted to the number of teenage passengers they can carry and hours they can drive.
Emergency response has also been streamlined to help victims get the right care more quickly.
Minnesota is a leader in many respects, said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Washington-based Governors Highway Safety Association.
“There’s no magic bullet. You have to have a really comprehensive strategy,” Adkins said, adding that Minnesota is ambitious in its “Toward Zero Deaths” objective.
“People say, ‘Oh that’s not realistic,’ but it actually is,” Adkins said. “These are not accidents. These are all preventable.”
Efforts to make the roads themselves safer can help.
Signals in the road
The flashing, motion-activated signs are not new technology. The state had put in a few in the early 2000s, using various configurations, sensors and manufacturers. After testing the different types, officials settled on a more standard design for most intersections:
Typically, a sign is placed on major roads some 800 to 900 feet back from an intersection with a warning such as “Entering Traffic When Flashing.” Smaller roads have the electronic signs and double lights.
The lights flash when a metal vehicle disrupts an electrical current coursing through a wire embedded in the crossing road.
Their installation, for roughly $145,000 each including design, construction and warranty, was prioritized based on risk factors at intersections, Hansen said. The new systems are funded primarily through the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program, in which 90 percent of the money is federal with 10 percent matched by the state.
Officials relied on more than just crash history in deciding where to place the warning systems. With so many intersections moving so little traffic in rural Minnesota, it’s more probable that an accident will occur down the road from where one just happened than occur in the same spot again, Hansen said.
In North Carolina, comparable signs have lowered crash rates about 25 percent. Minnesota will be part of a broader study of the effectiveness of such signs.
Weeks until the wedding
The rural Isanti intersection where Elizabeth Sainio died is surrounded by fields, buildings in the distance and, in one corner, a few trees. Cars come in spurts, going to and from the town of St. Francis on Hwy. 47. Often there’s nobody there. It’s the kind of common, flat country intersection that most people never think about.
A history of right-angled crashes here made it a priority for improvement, according to Tom Dumont, a traffic engineer for MnDOT. In the past decade, there were nearly 40 crashes at this crossroad, two with fatalities. One person died there in February 2005. Elizabeth Sainio died there a year and a half later, a passenger in a car that collided with a pickup truck.
“Had there been a stoplight there, this wouldn’t have happened, definitely,” said Conreras.
Sainio and her fiancé were a little more than a month away from their wedding, Contreras said. All the plans had been set and the two were on their way to sign a purchase agreement on a house that Sunday afternoon in August 2006. Sainio was in the passenger seat.
Driving east in a Saturn sedan, her fiancé stopped at the stop sign but didn’t see a pickup approaching from the south, Sainio’s mother recounted while standing at the intersection on a recent morning.
She pointed to a small hill on the highway to the south, saying it may have made it more difficult to notice a vehicle coming.
Her daughter’s fiancé, who along with the pickup occupants survived the crash, “is a wonderful person. It was truly an accident … I feel terrible for him also,” she said.
Contreras takes solace in knowing that her daughter died happy. The young woman had been smiling a lot. She was in love. She had a good job as a hair stylist. She looked forward to getting married and settling into a house.
Elizabeth was buried in her wedding dress.
Contreras shivered at the intersection and watched the new signs flash as occasional traffic zoomed by.
“It’s terrible that she had to die,” Contreras said. “But it’s good to know that something positive came out of it.”