The news was heart-wrenching.
A motorist allegedly under the influence of drugs and alcohol — and driving a stolen vehicle — crossed the centerline of state Hwy. 23 in Foley and slammed head-on into a car traveling in the opposite direction. The crash left a woman dead and her three young children without a mother.
About a week later and a few blocks from the spot where Lindsay Cardinal was killed Jan. 31, a 70-year-old Milaca man died in another head-on collision.
Over the past two years, law enforcement officers have responded to six crashes that have led to seven deaths on the 15-mile stretch of the two-lane highway running between Milaca and Foley in central Minnesota. Authorities from five police agencies say they’ve seen too much carnage, and earlier this year they joined forces to launch the Hwy. 23 Crash Reduction Project.
“We have a lot of fatal crashes and we want this to stop,” said Capt. Jason LaSart of the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office. “These fatal traffic crashes have a huge impact. Too many families are devastated by fatal crashes that could be avoided.”
Since the project kicked off this spring, police in Foley and Milaca, in concert with the State Patrol and sheriff’s deputies in Benton and Mille Lacs counties, have stepped up patrols along the rural highway where the speed limit is 60 miles per hour, but where drivers often go much faster.
The agencies, on their own dime, have made Hwy. 23 safety a No. 1 priority, said Benton County Sheriff Troy Heck. The five departments routinely send out officers to crack down on speeders, impaired and distracted drivers and those who run stop signs, fail to yield or illegally pass drivers on the shoulder. Those are the leading causes of crashes on the dangerous stretch of roadway, he said.
“This is good old-fashioned police work,” Heck said. In the past, he said, “drivers would have no hesitation to pass by me.” Since the campaign started, “they don’t go past me. People see you and are aware that we enforce the laws. We are out there to calm traffic.”
Police have made 685 traffic stops, but not all of them have resulted in warnings or citations.
Halfway through the yearlong effort, the increased patrols seem to be paying off. The number of crashes has dropped from 27 in the first half of 2016 to 15 so far this year, and injury crashes have dropped from 11 in the first half of 2016 to five this year, according to Heck.
There have been no fatal wrecks since Rocke Thomas Rowland, 70, of Milaca, was killed on Feb. 6.
The crash reduction effort has included posting signs along the highway encouraging safe driving. Officers also have been handing cards to drivers with a photo of the Cardinal family, posting messages on social media using the hashtag #safer23mn and relying on local media to spread the word to educate drivers.
Still, the message has not reached everybody, said Chelsea Stone Pelzer, an area resident.
“I still have individuals that are doing 70-plus and following way too close,” she wrote on Facebook. “I am still nervous to make left handed turns on the stretch between Foley and Milaca because of this.”
Extra patrols won’t solve everything. Sgt. Jesse Grabow of the State Patrol said drivers need to do their part by making smart choices. “We are trying to save people,” he said. “We still have crashes. One is one too many.”
Kevin Couch, the driver who hit Cardinal, suffered a brain injury and is unable to respond to any charges that may issued, said Benton County Attorney Philip Miller. MnDOT is conducting a Hwy. 23 safety audit and is expected to release its findings later this year.