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New stop signs for improved safety installed at deadly intersection near New London, Minn.

Minnesota Department of Transportation employees Rick Reigstad, top, and Galen Henjum install a new stop sign rimmed with solar-powered LED lights Wednesday on state Highway 9 at the intersection with U.S. Highway 71, which was the site of two fatal accidents within about a year’s time. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)2 / 2

NEW LONDON — Stop signs rimmed with solar-powered flashing LED lights were installed Wednesday on state Highway 9 at the intersection with U.S. Highway 71 west of New London in an attempt to improve safety at a spot where three people were killed in the last year.

The most recent accident happened about a month ago when an elderly couple from Madison were killed after they drove through the intersection and collided with a semi traveling on Highway 71. The semi driver was also seriously injured.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation shortly before the latest accident had installed a small flashing beacon on top of the stop signs on Highway 9  — cross traffic on Highway 71 does not stop — and MnDOT had plans to upgrade to a larger style of beacon this spring.

But MnDOT altered those plans and opted to instead install the flashing stop signs, said TJ Melcher, public affairs coordinator for MnDOT.

“It’s another tool in our toolbox to reduce risks coming into intersections,” he said. “This will make the stop sign more visible and reduce those who drive through an intersection.”

Melcher said MnDOT has a variety of options and “hopefully this is one that will improve safety at this intersection.”

Installing flashing stop signs involves less labor and less time than putting up beacons, and the project can be done in the dead of winter instead of waiting until spring. That quick turnaround was one reason why MnDOT chose the LED option, Melcher said.

Janett Helgeson, of Sunburg, saw the flashing stop signs Wednesday as she was driving on Highway 9 shortly after MnDOT had activated the solar panels that power the lights.

“I could see that sign almost a mile away,” said Helgeson. “I was ‘woo-hooing’ before I got to the stop sign.”

Helgeson was driving that same stretch of road a month ago and witnessed the double fatal accident.

She called 911 and tried to help the victims.

That traumatic experience, and that fact that she drives through that intersection nearly every day, prompted her to make phone calls that brought public attention to the danger of the intersection.

Helgeson is overjoyed that MnDOT responded quickly by installing the new attention-getting stop signs now.

“I’m glad they figured it out,” said Helgeson. “I thank God it was taken care of.”

Helgeson said she hopes the new stop signs will prevent future accidents from happening there.

So far, there are just a handful of these flashing LED stop signs in MnDOT’s District 8, which includes much of west central Minnesota.

“They’re effective because they’re out of the ordinary,” said Melcher.

Independent studies on exactly how effective have not been completed yet, he said, and even if drivers do see the signs and stop, it does not mean a driver could not also pull out in front of a vehicle and cause an accident.

Melcher also said installing the flashing stop signs was not necessarily in response to the latest fatal accident but was an “upgrade” to a safety project MnDOT had already planned for the intersection after the first fatal accident happened in January of 2012.

“We changed gears,” said Melcher.

Prior to last year’s two accidents that resulted in three fatalities, there had not been any fatal accidents at that the intersection for the five previous years, he said.

The cost of the LED stop sign is about $1,500, which is about twice as much as the cost of the beacons. But because the LED lights are powered by the sun, Melcher said the final cost is about the same.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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