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Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald, Published December 29 2010

US 2 overpass would have prevented tragic accident

Probably everybody who’s driven through the intersection at airport road and U.S. Highway 2 has had the same reaction.

“It’s just a matter of time.”

That’s what Shirley Jahnke thought nearly two decades ago, when her daughter was injured at the intersection. She led a campaign for an overpass then, and she’s raised the issue again.

Because time caught up with the intersection.

Two children were killed there last week, just before Christmas.

Remarkably, the intersection is not especially accident prone. In the five years beginning Jan. 1, 2005, there were 21 accidents there – an average of just a little more than four a year. These resulted in injuries to six people. There were no fatalities.

Until last week.

Statistically, the intersection is one of the busiest anywhere in rural North Dakota. An average of 11,000 cars pass through the intersection every day. That’s by far the largest number at any rural intersection on U.S. Highway 2 in North Dakota. Highway 2 traverses the state.

Many much less crowded intersections have overpasses, including those along the interstate highway system. Of course, Interstate 29 and Interstate 94 are controlled-access roads.

U.S. Highway 2 is not.

Indeed, many well-traveled roads join Highway 2 with less protection than exists at the airport road intersection. Formally, the road is known as County Road 5, but hardly anyone calls it that.

As it happens, there’s another busy intersection only about 15 miles west of airport road. It’s at the junction of North Dakota Highway 18 and U.S. 2, the Larimore corner.

That intersection handles almost 7,000 cars daily, yet traffic on Highway 2 doesn’t stop. Instead, access to Highway 2 is controlled by stop signs.

That was the situation at airport road, too, until Jahnke and others agitated for an overpass. The state Department of Transportation was loathe to spend the money, since its statistics didn’t suggest the intersection was all that dangerous.

So they put in stop lights instead.

This may have heightened the danger at the intersection, since traffic on U.S. 2 moves at high speed. There is a light warning of an impending stop, but it’s synchronized to highway speeds of 55 miles per hour, the legal limit – but probably not the prevailing speed. It may be that some drivers are tempted to beat the light.

It’s easy enough to argue that drivers should obey the law, and of course they should.

But not all do.

And no system of lights can prevent an accident.

There’s no doubt that an overpass would make the intersection safer. It would have spared the lives of those children.

But no highway can be made completely safe.

The Department of Transportation faces a dilemma, then. Should there be an overpass? Or should ordinary safety measures be sufficient to protect motorists?

And if there is an overpass, how should it be funded?

But if there isn’t, how can our consciences be quiet?

Time caught up with traffic last week, and an accident that many people had been expecting claimed two young lives.

Without significant changes, Jahnke’s assessment remains current.

“It’s only a matter of time” until tragedy strikes at that intersection again.

Unless the overpass is built.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Grand Forks Herald.