MARSHALL - In an effort to increase safety and reduce the number of traffic crashes, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is deploying Rural Intersection Conflict Warning Systems (RICWS) at rural intersections across the state.
The systems use technology on signs to give motorists real-time warning about oncoming traffic, also referred to as collision avoidance systems, MnDOT said. The signs warn motorists with sensors and flashing lights that MnDOT hopes will reduce fatal and injury crashes at higher-risk intersections.
Locally, a RICWS will be installed at the intersection of Minnesota Highway 23 and Lyon County Road 30, which has two intersections with 23. Weather permitting, the RICWS will be in place and operational at the north junction in early January.
Safety on 23, especially at areas with intersections, has long been a concern of local transportation officials.
"MnDOT District 8 is to be commended for making yet another safety improvement in our region," said David Sturrock, chairman of the Marshall Area Transportation Group. "Anything which makes Highway 23 safer also makes traffic flow more smoothly and represents one more step towards our long-term goal of four-lane capacity."
District 8 Traffic Engineer Ryan Barney said MnDOT is taking this proactive approach since traffic crashes are random and unpredictable.
"We are confident it will make a difference," Barney said. "They did some testing of the system down in the Carolinas, and they showed reduced fatal crashes in the 30 to 60 percent range, so we're confident we'll get a reduced number with it. Many people pull up to an intersection, will stop and then pull ahead, and many times they say they didn't see traffic coming. This will help heighten awareness that there's traffic coming from both sides."
The proposed warning signs with flashing beacons will advise drivers on major roads with a message "Entering Traffic When Flashing." Motorists on minor roads will see flashing beacons and the message "Traffic Approaching When Flashing." To start, the RICWS systems will be installed at 20 rural intersections statewide in the next few months and another 30 planned for the next two summers, for a total of 50 systems with the initial deployment.
Rural intersections can be considered higher risk for a number of reasons, including: higher speed limits, driver complacency with lower volumes of traffic and longer distances that emergency medical and trauma teams travel to transport victims, MnDOT said.
Barney said MnDOT broke down highways into sections to determine the intersections and areas that need extra warnings. Some of the criteria used to choose the intersections include average annual daily traffic, vehicles per day, if it's a skewed intersection or is near a curve, if it's near development or a railroad crossing and if a crash has occurred at a particular spot in the last five years.
"Each section has different characteristics, whether it's 23 or 212," Barney said. "Some sections around Marshall have upwards of 8,000 to 9,000 vehicles a day, where south of Jasper it's 1,800 a day. We look at each section on an individual basis."
The warning system won't be the same style as the electronic signs currently posted at the intersection of Minnesota Highway 23 and Lyon County Road 7 but will have the same purpose of warning drivers about oncoming traffic.
According to Minnesota Crash Facts, fatal crashes tend to occur on roads in rural areas with higher speeds and with non-interstate designs (separation between opposing lanes and grade separated intersections, etc.) In 2011, 225 crashes, or 67 percent, of all fatal crashes occurred in rural areas with populations of less than 5,000 people.
There are safety concerns at other areas on 23, particularly near Cottonwood, that have been discussed at past Lyon County Board meetings but based on MnDOT's safety data, the 23/30 intersection was determined to be a higher priority.