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ROBIN HUEBNER REPORTS: Stretches of North Dakota interstates to get lifesaving barriers

Cable median barrier near Barnesville, Minn.
A cable median barrier on Interstate 94 near Barnesville, Minn. Transportation officials plan to set up such barriers this summer on portions of interstates in North Dakota. Jordan Ryan / WDAY

FARGO — A traffic safety tool known to prevent nearly all of a certain type of deadly crash will begin to be installed for the first time on portions of North Dakota interstates this summer.

Workers will start putting in high-tension cable median barriers along parts of Interstate 94 around Fargo and Bismarck, and Interstate 29 in the Grand Forks area.

Jane Berger, programming division director at the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said the 2019 project will cost about $6 million.

The federal government will cover 90 percent of that cost, while the state will pay 10 percent. Additional projects will follow in 2020 and 2021.


The barriers keep vehicles traveling at highway speeds from darting across the median and into oncoming traffic. "If you cross the median and you hit head on, head-on crashes are oftentimes very severe,” Berger said.

A recent such crash happened in July along I-29 near Hankinson, N.D., when three people from two families were killed. A Forum story at the time quoted a friend of one family blaming the three deaths on the lack of median barriers, and she called for action.

A cross-median crash in February 2012 on I-94 near Alexandria, Minn., killed four people, all of them students at North Dakota State University.

Cable median barriers were in place in some parts of Minnesota then, but not at that particular location. However, they were installed in the Alexandria area two years later.

The barriers now cover more than 600 miles of Minnesota interstate highways, including the entire length of I-94 from Moorhead to the Twin Cities.

Trudy Kordosky, a traffic engineer at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the state has seen a 95 percent reduction in fatal cross-median crashes.

“Since Minnesota started installing the cable median barrier in 2004, they estimate we’ve saved over 100 lives,” she said.

Similar results have been seen nationwide. According to the Federal Highway Administration, barriers installed on rural four-lane freeways resulted in a 97 percent reduction of cross-median crashes.


According to MnDOT, the barriers are made of three or four steel cables strung on posts.

When a car hits the barrier, the posts break and the cables flex, absorbing much of a crash’s kinetic energy and redirecting the vehicle along the median. A minimum median width is required for cable installation.

“The car does not stop instantaneously. There needs to be some width, some distance behind that to capture the vehicle,” Kordosky said.

The barriers do increase the risk of property damage crashes, because without barriers, a certain number of drivers who enter the median could regain control and avoid a collision.

However, MnDOT said that’s an acceptable risk given how effective the barriers are in preventing fatal and serious crashes.

What makes it challenging to determine locations for cable median barriers, Berger said, is that cross-median crashes are random in nature, and there’s a lot of area to cover.

North Dakota has about 570 miles of interstate, most of it surrounded by prairie. As such, safety experts looked at crash history, median widths, number of lanes, rural vs. urban areas and perhaps most importantly, traffic volumes.

“Obviously ... the risk if somebody were to cross over the median that there is actually somebody on the other side is higher as traffic volumes go up,” Berger said.


Cable median barrier near Barnesville, Minn.
A cable median barrier is seen on Interstate 94 near Barnesville, Minn. Jordan Ryan / WDAY

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