Residents are calling for changes to boost safety at an unusual intersection on Hwy. 65 in East Bethel where a motorcyclist recently died.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is also looking at fixes to make the Viking Boulevard intersection safer amid drivers’ confusion about its configuration involving multiple turn lanes and U-turns.
MnDOT installed the complex layout, called a Reduced Conflict Intersection, in 2019 to reduce cross traffic and crashes on the divided highway. Now, drivers from Viking can only make right turns onto Hwy. 65. If they want to go the other direction, or continue on the other side of Viking Boulevard, they must proceed to another stoplight on the highway and make a U-turn. But drivers are getting tripped up by the multiple turn lanes with different rules.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Nancy Levercom, who lives about a half-mile from the intersection and started a petition to change it. “There are too many lanes and too many people going in too many different places.”
As of Tuesday, more than 6,200 people have signed her Change.org petition asking MnDOT to put in an overpass.
Levercom said she has taken evasive action many times — and has seen others do the same — when drivers making U-turns have pulled out in front of her.
“I believe it’s unsafe with the amount of turn lanes,” she said. “And I don’t believe they are clearly labeled.”
Reduced Conflict Intersections prevent traffic from side roads from directly crossing busy highways, lessening the chances of broadside crashes, the type that typically results in the most serious injuries and fatalities, MnDOT said. The agency has installed about 20 of the intersections across the state, including five in the past two years along Hwy. 65 in Ham Lake and East Bethel.
They have a good track record at reducing crashes and improving safety, said Melissa Barnes, MnDOT’s north area engineer. But that has not happened at Viking and Hwy. 65, the only such intersection in Minnesota to have double right turn lanes, U-turns and traffic lights.
Data from MnDOT show that the intersection had 29 crashes — with 15 injuries and no deaths — from January 2016 to June 2019, when the new intersection at Viking opened.
Since then, there have been 17 crashes resulting in six injuries and two deaths. They included six rear-end crashes, five T-bone or right-angled crashes, two sideswipes, two drivers who hit signals or poles, one driver who ran off the road and one crash MnDOT classified as undetermined.
It is not clear if the intersection’s design led to the recent death of motorcyclist Michael T. McCauley, 64. He was headed south on Hwy. 65 the morning of July 22 when he collided with a truck that had pulled onto the highway from Viking.
Motorists on Viking have two right turn lanes. Drivers can turn right on red from the lane nearest the right curb, but not the other lane. At the U-turns on Hwy. 65, drivers can proceed after stopping for a red light and yielding to traffic.
Barnes acknowledged that is a recipe for confusion, but she said there also has been bad driver behavior.
“You are not supposed to take a right turn on red except from the [far] right lane,” Barnes said. “We have issues with people following that, then they weave to where they want to be.”
MnDOT is looking at a range of remedies, including better signs and pavement markings. The agency may also prohibit right turns on red lights from Viking onto Hwy. 65, and increase education and enforcement.
“We are looking at what can be done in the short term to improve safety,” Barnes said. “We want to make sure what we do is working effectively. It’s sad to deal with any fatality on road. We are taking this seriously.”
Levercom, who in her online petition called the intersection a “death trap,” is hoping for an overpass. The intersection sees about 29,000 vehicles per day on Hwy. 65 and 6,500 vehicles per day on Viking. Both roads are expected to see 20-50% more traffic by 2040, according to MnDOT.
But an overpass is unlikely.
“It would take multiple years to build a bridge,” Barnes said.