Target 2: Rumble strips were removed from road, then there was a fatal crash

Published: Jul. 16, 2018 at 5:58 PM CDT
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You've likely heard the sound of rumble strips warning drivers to be on alert. You may hear it even more now, but not everyone likes the sound of that.

Weekend before last, Brown County emergency crews responded to two separate and serious crashes. In all, three people died. The sheriff's office says both happened when someone didn't stop for a stop sign.

Two died in a crash on July 8 when a motorcycle blew through a stop sign and T-boned a car at high speed at the intersection of county highways Z and G in southern Brown County, killing the motorcyclist and the car's driver.

That intersection looks like many rural areas in Brown County: Wide open roads where speed limits are generally 55 miles per hour, and lots of trees which make it hard to spot oncoming traffic from a distance.

"Here we listened... I wish I hadn't"

When Target 2 Investigates started asking questions about safety, we discovered there used to be rumble strips warning drivers of stop signs at that intersection. The narrow gaps in the road briefly shake a vehicle and make a loud noise when you drive over them to act as a warning, usually for a stop sign.

County Highway Commissioner Paul Fontecchio met with Target 2 at highways Z and G. Every time there's a crash in Brown County, Fontecchio drives to that location. This one bothers him maybe even more than others.

"There was rumble strips behind us, and they were filled in in September 2015, I believe."

Fontecchio gave the OK to remove the rumble strips, which community members tell us were installed on Highway Z because of another fatal crash at that intersection in the 1990s.

Fontecchio says the noisy warning systems were placed on a lot of highways back then, but in the last decade the trend shifted to removing them as rural areas developed and more homes popped up.

"There's only one big reason we're not using them: It's sound."

Fontecchio showed Target 2 the emails from 2015 when the Town of Morrison repeatedly asked to have rumble strips on County Z removed.

"Here we listened, and we filled them in. I wish I didn't. I wish I hadn't," Fontecchio said. "So now I'm reassessing."

The Brown County Sheriff's Office says this was the second major crash at that intersection since their removal, both involving drivers missing the stop sign.

"Rumble strips may not be the right choice"

No one can say for sure whether rumble strips would have prevented either crash, but Fontecchio thinks any step to prevent distracted driving needs to be taken.

"This would be a good candidate, I think, to put those back in."

Fontecchio also showed Target 2 a Federal Highway Administration study of Iowa and Minnesota finding a 39 percent reduction in fatal or serious injuries where rumble strips were installed.

Morrison Town Chairman Tom Kempen said, "The intersection definitely needs to be addressed. To default back to the rumble strips may not be the right choice."

Kempen said he asked the county to remove the rumble strips three years ago "on behalf of constituents." He agreed improvements must be made there but other options should be considered.

"One of the possibilities is to certainly turn it into a four-way stop," he offered.

Kempen and board members are also suggesting an overhead flashing red light, flashing lights around the stop sign itself, a roundabout, or even add a second stop sign on the left side of the road to give people distracted by Way-Morr Park -- which is on the left side -- another chance to notice a stop sign.

He wants drivers to be safe, but he says sound is a concern.

"You've got to understand we live in a rural area here, and it's generally pretty quiet," Kempen said.

"The sound of saving people's lives"

About 10 miles away, rumble strips warn drivers they're approaching a stop sign at County Highway PP and Man-Cal Road. The highway commissioner put them in after a fatal crash there last fall.

Target 2 wanted to find how loud the rumble strips are. Using a popular decibel meter app, we placed our phone right next to the road. The highest reading it registered was 64 decibels, what it classifies as "normal conversation."

We talked with homeowners who live less than a quarter of a mile from the rumble strips who told us they only hear them when they're outdoors.

The Brown County Sheriff's Office says 14 people have died in 11 crashes at rural intersections since 2016, and it favors any safety improvements.

"The unfortunate thing is you might make one, two or three or four people unhappy because of those strips, so what do you balance versus what's best for the community?" sheriff's Capt. Dan Sandberg said.

The highway commissioner spent all last week looking at ways to prevent crashes like the one at Z and G. He plans to give a detailed report to a committee of Brown County supervisors on Tuesday, detailing specific criteria for installing rumble strips at more locations across the county, including speed, line of sight, and places drivers just don't expect to stop.

But when it comes to sound, "I'm probably going to be a lot less accommodating to that specific complaint in the future," he said. "We have to look and say that's not a nuisance noise. That's the sound of saving people's lives."

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