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What Makes Urban Roads So Dangerous?

Oftentimes emergency roadside workers risk their lives due to narrow shoulders and distracted drivers.

(TNS) -- The call came in to Absolute Towing around 8:45 on a recent spring morning, notable only for its persistent drizzle. Flat tire. Two people. “I-94 and Manning-ish” -- a reference to the exurban Washington County crossroad.

This service call was a relatively safe one for Tim Heldman, who owns the Oakdale towing firm. The occupants of the disabled Ford Fusion had carefully steered the sedan off the busy highway and onto an expansive shoulder, where it was hoisted onto his tow truck without incident.

But that’s not always the case. “Basically, every time I go out, I’m risking my life for 40 bucks,” said Heldman.

As Twin Cities roads grow more congested and as Minnesota’s summer road construction begins this Thursday, the safe haven of the highway shoulder for motorist emergencies and traffic stops may not be terribly safe. Many stretches of road in the metro area have limited roadside space -- or sometimes no shoulders at all.

Add to the mix distracted drivers -- those texting, e-mailing and talking on the phone -- and a lack of awareness of the state’s “move over” laws requiring drivers to move over a lane to avoid stalled or stopped vehicles on roadway shoulders.

“It can be very dangerous,” said John McClellan, freeway operations supervisor of the Freeway Incident Response Safety Team for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). If someone breaks down, “being on the shoulder is better, but the best thing is to not be out there in a disabled vehicle.”

That’s not always an option for police, emergency workers, firefighters and tow truck drivers called to the scene of an accident or breakdown -- often a risky proposition to safely navigate.

Deaths hard to track

It’s difficult to quantify the number of emergency and roadside responders who are killed or injured by careless motorists because there’s no central clearinghouse for collecting that information.

The Emergency Responder Safety Institute reports that seven fire and emergency medical personnel were killed across the country in struck-by-vehicle incidents last year, and two additional fatalities of off-duty personnel who stopped to help at crash sites. That’s up from two fatalities in 2014.

Six law-enforcement officers were fatally struck by vehicles in 2014 -- directing traffic, assisting motorists, or while conducting a traffic stop, according to the FBI. Nine fatalities were reported in 2013.

A police officer in Minnesota hasn’t been killed in such an incident since Aug. 31, 2000, when state trooper Ted Foss was struck and killed by a vehicle on Interstate 90 near Winona while on a traffic stop.

Foss’ death was the impetus for the state’s “move over” law requiring motorists to move over a lane to avoid stopped emergency vehicles, or slow down if it’s not safe to switch lanes. Fines can exceed $100, and the Minnesota State Patrol last year issued 3,443 citations and warnings. Still, seven squad cars were struck while parked, and two troopers injured in 2015, and six squad cars have been struck so far this year.

“We try to never turn our back on traffic during a stop,” said State Patrol spokeswoman Lt. Tiffani Nielson. “Our job is to pick a safe location. Sometimes we follow a driver for a while until there’s a safe place to stop, then we activate our lights. We try to handle things quickly; the longer we’re out there, the higher the risk.”

Squeezing the shoulders

A right shoulder is typically 10 feet wide on Minnesota freeways. If the desired width can’t be achieved, MnDOT says it has a detailed review process for state and federal highways. And if the road is within the federal interstate system, another review is done by the Federal Highway Administration.

But on highways such as Hiawatha and Central avenues and Olson Highway, the right shoulder is often less than that because of its “urban nature,” according to MnDOT. Left shoulder width standards depend on the number of lanes in each direction, but are usually 2 to 10 feet wide.

An example of a design exemption is I-94 from Hwy. 280 to the I-35W/94 commons in Minneapolis, where lanes were re-striped following the I-35W bridge collapse, reducing the right and left shoulders from 10 feet to as little as 2 feet. The initial reason for the reduction was to add a lane because of the bridge collapse, but MnDOT decided to keep it that way because it reduced congestion.

In a statement, MnDOT said the slimmer shoulders on I-94 don’t necessarily imperil safety along the road, “although certain aspects may be less than desirable.”

Tow-truck accident on I-94

That was the case when one of Heldman’s employees at Absolute Towing was seriously injured along this stretch of highway while tending to a disabled motorist in January. Trevor Allison, 39, of St. Paul, was loading a vehicle onto his tow truck on the eastbound snow-slicked left shoulder near the Riverside Avenue exit. Allison was outside the truck, which had its emergency lights flashing, when he noticed an oncoming car hurtling toward him.

He leapt over the low median wall into westbound traffic to avoid it, and was hit by two cars.

Allison did not respond to a request for comment, but Heldman said he faces a long recovery. Many people aren’t aware of the state’s “move over” laws, he said, “and think about the thousands of people violating the law every day.”

Mindful of this, MnDOT is launching a safety campaign this week urging motorists to be alert and prepared for unexpected changes near work zones during road construction season.

Last year, 10 motorists and passengers died and 1,684 crashes occurred within Minnesota work zones -- areas identified by warning signs, signals, barriers, pavement markings and flaggers. All told, about 200 active work zones are scheduled throughout the state this season.

“All of the fatalities were motorists and their passengers, although in previous years there have been maintenance crew workers who have lost their lives, been injured or had close calls,” said Jay Hietpas, director of MnDOT’s Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology in a statement. “Most of these fatalities and crashes were the result of driver inattention and speeding, both behaviors we can change.”

©2016 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.