In a desperate move to escape gridlock, impatient motorists stuck on a Twin Cities freeway took matters into their own hands by driving up a grassy embankment to reach an off ramp already jammed with vehicles and forced their way into traffic.

Their actions — dangerous and technically illegal — added to the already chaotic scene that unfolded April 7 on Interstate 94 just past the 49th Avenue exit in north Minneapolis, where two vehicles traveling north on 94 sideswiped each other.

One crashed through a fence and came to rest on a sidewalk by an adjacent frontage road. The other veered onto the shoulder, then back into traffic, where it struck a van. The van hit the center concrete median, then rolled over several times and came to rest in the traffic lanes.

Three members of a Nigerian family in the van were killed: Olawunmi Olabisi-Barbington; her son, Seun Eperutolu-Barbington; and the family’s matriarch, 80-year-old Modupe Olabisi.

The horrific crash blocked traffic for hours. Motorists who had just passed the 49th Avenue exit but had not yet reached the crash site found themselves trapped on the freeway.

Some of them saw the open green space on the right and took advantage of it to reach the 49th Avenue on-ramp.

One motorist drove through the grass and barged into traffic that had been diverted to the off ramp, then continued across 49th Avenue and onto a frontage road that led to an on ramp at 53rd Avenue. Other motorists soon followed.

Understandably, the stranded motorists just wanted to get on their way, but in doing so, did they break the law?

The black-and-white answer is yes, said Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol.

“You cannot drive across the median to turn around on a freeway, even if the freeway is blocked,” Roeske said. “That would be dangerous and illegal.”

In most cases, the patrol will set up a detour, but drivers who can’t get off a roadway legally should wait until authorities direct them to do so.

Often, that takes time because police must first aid the victims and secure the crash site. After that, they will provide direction to motorists who are caught between the detour and a crash site and lead them safely off the road, Roeske said.

“We would not expect them to sit there for three hours,” Roeske said. “This requires everyone’s patience. We do make every effort to get them off the highway and on their way.”

Each crash presents a different set of circumstances, but Roeske said drivers who are caught at accident scenes and make decisions on their own before getting direction from authorities can create safety hazards for other motorists.

He did acknowledge that there are times when common sense would dictate that actions such as driving through a median might be the only way out. In those cases troopers might look the other way, Roeske said.

Whatever drivers do, “it needs to be done with careful consideration for themselves and to other drivers,” he said. “There needs to be cooperation to make things work and to make the best of a bad situation.”

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