Motorists on Hwy. 23 between Milaca and Foley in central Minnesota can expect a greater police presence as five agencies step up enforcement in an effort to reduce deadly crashes.
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Over the past two years, police have responded to six crashes that have led to seven deaths on the 15-mile stretch of the two-lane highway running between the two towns.
In January, a driver believed to be under the influence of alcohol, drugs or both crossed the centerline of Hwy. 23 at 11th Avenue in Foley and struck and killed Lindsay Cardinal, a mother of three young children, in a head-on crash. About a week later and a few blocks away, a 62-year-old was killed in another head-on collision.
Authorities say they’ve had enough and joined together to launch the Hwy. 23 Crash Reduction Project.
For the next year, officers and deputies from sheriffs’ offices in Benton and Mille Lacs counties, police departments in Foley and Milaca and the State Patrol will be looking for motorists who are speeding, not wearing seat belts, disobeying stop signs or are distracted or impaired.
“This has been a dangerous roadway historically,” said Benton County Sheriff Troy Heck. “We continue to push the message to people that you need to follow the speed limit, you need to pay attention, you need to end the distraction and that you are not driving impaired.”
Drivers must do their part, Heck said. Law enforcement, he said, will do theirs by putting out the message about safe driving and “taking care of any violation that we find.”
Law enforcement kicked off the plan after meeting with representatives from Sherburne and Wright counties, where similar efforts have reduced the number of crashes and deaths, Heck said.
A similar campaign last year on Hwy. 12 in western Hennepin County challenged drivers to go a year without a fatal crash. That did not happen, but officials were successful in getting a center median built between Wayzata and Orono, turn lanes installed at two intersections in the Independence area, and rumble strips installed along the centerline.
Law enforcement in both Benton and Mille Lacs counties have been talking with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to see what upgrades might be made to the rural highway, that has seen an uptick in traffic as more and more drivers use it to get to and from work and to go shopping in nearby St. Cloud.
The speed limit on the road is 60 miles per hour, but people often drive faster by adding “their personal fudge factor,” Heck said.
A number of recent crashes and near misses have occurred during morning and afternoon commuting periods, Heck said.
The project also calls for increased enforcement similar to those carried out by police during holiday periods. The problem is serious enough that participating agencies have made it a top priority. They will not receive any additional funding as those participating in statewide initiatives do, said Foley Police Chief Katie McMillin.
“Our success in this effort is not measured by the number of citations we issue or arrests we make,” Heck said.
“Our success is in preventing the types of destructive driving decisions that affect the safety of all the individuals and families who travel this roadway. We are asking motorists to make smart choices each and every time they get in a vehicle.”
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768