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First Street and Willmar Avenue intersection is city's most deadly, and has been for years

The intersection on North Business 71 by the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building has been a concern for transportation officials due to the number of fatal accidents there over the past several years. However, it's this intersection at First Street and Willmar Avenue that is the most crash-prone in Willmar, according to Willmar Police Chief Jim Kulset. "A lot of it is related to the increase in volume," Kulset said. "It all can be avoided by people paying attention to what they're doing a...

WILLMAR -- Here's a quiz.

The intersection in Willmar with the most crashes is:

North Business 71 and 23rd Street Northeast; First Street and Willmar Avenue; First Street and 19th Avenue; Highway 12 and Lakeland Drive.

If you picked the intersection on North Business 71 by the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building, you'd be wrong. Willmar Police Chief Jim Kulset doesn't even hesitate in coming up with the right answer: "First and Willmar."

Year after year, this busy intersection consistently ranks as one of the most crash-prone in town, he said. The second-worst intersection is at First Street and 19th Avenue.

"A lot of it is related to the increase in volume," Kulset said. "It all can be avoided by people paying attention to what they're doing and remembering they're in control of a 3,000-pound motor vehicle."

A string of severe crashes, some of them fatal, has city officials'-- and the public's --attention focused on the safety of North Business 71 where it intersects with 23rd Street Northeast.

But when Marilee Dorn, crime prevention officer for the Willmar Police Department, began digging through crash data from the past 18 months, the information told a different story.

Dorn retrieved and read every crash report filed in the city of Willmar from Jan. 1, 2008, through June 30, 2009. The city's major thoroughfares -- streets such as North Business 71, First Street, 19th Avenue and Highway 12 -- accounted for more than 300 crashes alone.

Fourteen of them occurred at the troubled North 71-23rd Street intersection. But the highest overall number of crashes occurred on South First Street -- 50 at First Street and Willmar Avenue in the past year and a half, and 28 at First Street and 19th Avenue.

"That is the worst intersection in town," Dorn said of the First Street and Willmar Avenue crossing.

Altogether, there were more than 130 crashes on First Street during the 18 months covered by Dorn's study.

It's a street with high traffic volume, so these findings were expected, Dorn said. But the study also revealed some surprises. On Highway 12, the main east-west artery through town, there were 64 crashes. About one-third of these occurred in a 10-block stretch from Second Street Southwest to the bridge just west of 11th Street.

Those 10 blocks include controlled intersections with Second Street, Third Street, Seventh Street and 10th Street, Dorn said. "They all have semaphores."

On the short stretch of Ella Avenue between First and Seventh Streets, six crashes were recorded. Another eight crashes happened at the intersection of Ella and First Street.

"This surprised me," Dorn said.

Another unexpected trouble spot: the intersection of 19th Avenue and 15th Street Southwest, where five crashes were recorded during the 18 months that Dorn studied.

"These are people blowing the light or somebody turning right in front of another vehicle," she said.

Speeds tend to be lower at these intersections, so there have been fewer crash-related injuries -- and comparatively less attention from the public -- than at North Business 71 and 23rd Street, Kulset said.

"That fuels perceptions, no question," he said.

But regardless of where they happen, crashes are costly and problematical, he said.

Signal lights have been suggested as one solution to making the North Business 71 intersection safer, but there's little actual evidence this would help, and in fact there's anecdotal evidence they might actually increase the crash rate, Kulset said.

He points to Willmar's two worst intersections as an example. "If you look at them, they're all controlled by a semaphore," he said. "Our top five have almost consistently been semaphored intersections."

Semaphores can help control traffic at an intersection but they don't directly prevent crashes, Dorn said. "They depend on people adhering to the law."

The single most important strategy for lowering the crash incidence? It's the reduction of human error, she and Kulset said.

The vast majority of crashes are due in some way to driver error -- drinking, speeding or inattentiveness, for instance -- and are considered preventable, Kulset said.

"It seems like as a society we're much more in a hurry than we used to be and we're multi-tasking. It doesn't seem we put the responsibility and emphasis on driving that we could or should," he said. "It goes back to responsibility on the part of people who operate motor vehicles. In a perfect world we wouldn't need the police."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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