State Street in Bismarck has somewhat of a reputation.
In recent years, intersections along the north-south thoroughfare have ranked at the top of the 50 urban high crash locations ranked by the North Dakota Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Improvement Program. Data compiled in three-year increments highlight the state’s high crash locations in communities of 5,000 people or more, weighted according to fatalities, injury severity and property damage.
Seventeen Bismarck locations made NDDOT’s 2014-16 list in the HSIP, including State Street’s intersection with Interstate Avenue at No. 1. Again.
Three other Bismarck intersections also crowd the top five in North Dakota. But that doesn’t mean the city has the most dangerous corners in North Dakota. Context is key.
"We throw 50,000 people every day into an intersection and ask them to not hit each other," Bismarck city engineer Gabe Schell said. "We’re ultimately trying to make it as safe as we can.”
Behind the wheel
Distractions are the biggest reason for crashes, according to Bismarck Police Lt. Jeff Solemsaas. Police respond to an average of 10 crashes a day, or about 3,800 per year, a third of which are in parking lots, such as those of high schools or malls, he said.
“Two-thirds are on the street. Obviously, the more traffic you have, the more likely you are to have collisions,” Solemsaas said. “Statistically, we have collisions along State Street, Bismarck Expressway, Century Avenue, anywhere there’s more traffic.”
From 3 to 6 p.m. is a high crash time in Bismarck, the traffic lieutenant said, with some crashes happening during the morning commute. The first snow of the season is notable as well, said Solemsaas, noting that’s rooted in driver behavior not adapting to new road conditions.
Schell agreed driver behavior can offer some challenges, particularly regarding yellow lights.
“If I see that yellow light, I might slow down, you might speed up or vice versa,” he said. “Because everyone’s making different decisions at those areas, we try to make those facilities as safe as we can.”
Yellow lights should be a decision point, not a signal to speed up, according to Schell.
Also, unlike other cities, Bismarck has no north-south highway with separated crossings, such as Interstate 29 in Fargo.
“We have all our important north-south roads that have to cross other roads so we’re just more predisposed to having conflict in that scenario than maybe another community that has a higher speed, grade-accessed, controlled facility to move people around,” Schell said.
Shawn Kuntz, traffic operations engineer with NDDOT, said goals of the department’s data gathering include eliminating traffic fatalities and using various tools, such as countdown timers and red light running enforcement, to mitigate crashes.
“Ultimately, the goal is to get all these 50 (locations) off the list,” Kuntz said. “It just takes time.”
A number of projects are in the works for 2018. Confirmation lights and countdown timers are to be installed at State Street’s intersections with Interstate Avenue and Century Avenue as well as at Main Avenue and Ninth Street.
Understanding if those countermeasures work can take a few data cycles, Schell said. Construction along major thoroughfares can route traffic onto other streets, leading to a bump in crashes elsewhere, and altering the data for a short time.
Take last summer’s construction on Interstate 94 in Bismarck, for example.
“Understand there might be a bump in the crashes that might occur in 2017 that might then come right back down in 2018,” Schell said. “It’s relative to the amount of vehicles moving through that intersection.”
NDDOT spokeswoman Jamie Olson said the HSIP data are numbers-driven and don’t point to specific factors, such as drinking or text messaging.
“It’s not looking at other factors that influence safety like driver behavior,” she said.
However, NDDOT does track trends like rear-endings and angle crashes.
The intersection of State Street and Interstate Avenue saw 48 crashes in snow and icy conditions from 2014-16, as well as 77 rear-endings and 25 angle crashes in that time, NDDOT reported.
“We’ve always had intersections that have needed addressing, just like everyone would,” Schell said. “The truer test is, is there a trend going up or down? Ultimately, if you pick the top 25 intersections in the state, you don’t want to be on that list, but, ultimately, there has to be a list.”