Minnesota Poll: Few drivers fearful; others just get over it

  • Article by: Jim Foti
  • Star Tribune
  • October 7, 2007 - 12:05 AM

The Interstate 35W bridge collapse has not shaken most Minnesotans' confidence in the condition of the state's bridges, according to the latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll. But more than a quarter of respondents say they worry about making it across some of the bridges they regularly use.

Even for those drivers, however, the fears aren't keeping them off the roads.

"It would impede my daily life too much if I worried about every bridge I drive over," said Julie Berthiaume of Eagan. "I don't want to be a prisoner to that."

Conducted seven weeks after the 40-year-old bridge fell in Minneapolis, the poll captured Minnesotans' levels of concern in the wake of the tragedy, and it also reflected some of the debate going on at the highest levels of state government.

"I don't think they're doing a good job on the inspections," said Mary Woida of Eagan, referring to state efforts to check thousands of bridges. "I think they're trying to politically cover themselves on this one."

Men, college graduates and younger adults were more likely to express confidence in the safety of bridges; overall, 72 percent of respondents were "somewhat confident" or "very confident" in the state's bridges.

A quarter of respondents had little or no confidence in the state's bridges as a whole, while 29 percent were somewhat or very worried about bridges they regularly use.

Respondents were evenly split over whether the 35W tragedy was an isolated incident or a sign of a larger problem with the nation's bridges and highways.

Fear, and moving past it

When Lee Becicka drives from his home in Zimmerman to the veterans' hospital in St. Cloud, he doesn't like taking the Hwy. 23 bridge over the Mississippi River -- especially when he has to share it with heavy vehicles. "The other day there was a big dump truck on it, and it just makes you paranoid," he said.

The bridge was inspected two days after the collapse, and the state found no serious problems.

Other poll respondents have more widespread bridge concerns. "I think they need to check them all," said Lynette Whitlock of Burnsville. "I don't think anybody's too confident now."

But Richard Anderson of Hastings is among the 69 percent of respondents who said they were not too worried or not at all worried about the safety of the bridges they use regularly. His attitude is helpful in a one-bridge river town -- any refusal to use the narrow 56-year-old span in Hastings would mean driving to the nearest alternative crossings, 20 miles upstream or 25 miles downstream.

"Can you imagine if I just want to go over to Prescott?" Anderson said, referring to the Wisconsin town 5 miles away. "I'd have to drive to Red Wing and come back."

Vern Devine, a St. Louis Park psychologist who works with nervous drivers, said he didn't expect the bridge collapse to influence worry levels much. Drivers who fear bridges tend to worry that they'll steer their vehicles over the edge or feel trapped, not that the bridge will fail, he said.

"When something like this happens, it gives everybody pause, but bridges are so much a part of our life," he said. People keep getting into cars despite the "horrendous numbers" of traffic fatalities, he said. "Our own personal experience of driving ... tends to give us the illusion that it isn't going to happen to us."

Local vs. national

On bridge issues, the poll results largely paralleled those of national polls conducted about a week after the collapse by the Associated Press and CNN.

Asked last month whether the collapse was an isolated incident or part of a broader problem, Minnesotans were divided, with 48 percent on each side. But in the AP poll taken Aug. 6-8, 55 percent of Americans saw a broader problem; only 42 percent thought of it as an isolated incident.

Berthiaume has been following news about inspections, and she takes comfort that "none of the bridges that I normally drive over on a regular basis were cited."

She'll probably avoid the Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul because of its low ratings, but otherwise, she's decided not to worry. "I don't want to be shaking and fearful every time I get in the car and drive over a bridge wondering 'will it collapse?'"

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

Jim Foti •

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