by CHRIS ROGERS
In the last 23 years, nine people died in two crashes at the corner of Huff Street and Riverview Drive in Winona. This year, temporary concrete barriers will be removed from the road and new guardrails will be installed. Will the new barriers help prevent future tragedies?
“On behalf of the city of Winona, I want to express our sympathy to the parents, families, and friends of the three Saint Mary’s University students and two alumni who died so tragically,” then Winona Mayor Jerry Miller wrote in the aftermath of a 1997 accident, when details about the victims were still being determined. Later reports showed it was actually four college seniors and one recent graduate who went off the road at the corner of Riverview Drive, crashed through the ice on the Mississippi River, and drowned that year. In 2014, four local people in their late 20s and 30s died at the same corner. Authorities never released the results of blood-alcohol tests in the 1997 crash, while a Minnesota State Patrol investigation found that the driver in the 2014 crash was intoxicated. According to the state patrol, that vehicle was likely traveling at around 50 mph when it crashed through a section of guardrail. The vehicle, an SUV, struck the beginning of the guardrail — which is less able to absorb crashes than middle sections — and was sent airborne before careening down the levee embankment and into the river, according to the investigation. “We need to do something about it,” current mayor Mark Peterson said of the corner in 2017. “It’s an intersection where we’ve had a lot of horrible things happen, and I want to make sure we make it safer.”
The 2014 crash occurred shortly before construction began on the Winona interstate bridge project and concrete Jersey barriers were temporarily placed around the Riverview Drive corner to separate traffic from a construction staging area. For the past five years, those concrete barriers have lined the corner where the past deadly crashes occurred. This year, with the bridge project wrapping up, contractors will remove those barriers. In their place, the city of Winona will install new guardrails as part of a project to resurface Riverview Drive.
“It should protect from those accidents happening again,” Winona City Engineer Brian DeFrang said of the new guardrail. “Obviously anything can happen. Nothing is 100 percent, but the intention is to prevent a serious river entrance again.”
There are different styles of guardrails, some of which are stronger than others; however, the new barriers will be standard-issue guardrails of essentially the same style as the old ones they will replace. The new rails will be slightly taller to meet new state standards designed to accommodate for taller, modern vehicles.
“They’re going to look like your standard three-plate guardrail — pretty similar to what’s out there right now. But the location is the biggest difference,” DeFrang said of the new guardrails. “We’re going to wrap it around that corner.”
The previous guardrails began just as Riverview Drive straightens out and heads west. Yellow chevrons directed northbound motorists to follow that curve, but no barriers prevented them from leaving the roadway and crashing into the river.
The new guardrails will extend all the way around the curve and south of the railroad line that crosses Riverview Drive. The new guardrail likely would not stop a head-on collision at high speed, such as the 2014 crash; however, by extending the guardrail around the curve, DeFrang said any vehicles leaving the roadway should run into the barrier and bounce off at a low angle. “Guardrails are not designed for perpendicular collisions,” DeFrang stated. “They’re designed to kind of deflect you.” He continued, “If you’re going 40 mph and hit [the guardrail] somewhat parallel, it’s going to keep you on the road. If you’re going 40 mph and hit it perpendicularly, you’re probably going off the road.” However, because the new guardrails will wrap around the entire curve, they should deflect motorists before they have a chance to hit any section of the rail head-on, he explained.
Asked if the city considered installing permanent concrete barriers at the corner, DeFrang said city officials decided against that because of the potential for such solid barriers to cause serious injuries in a crash. Hitting a concrete barrier is like hitting a wall, DeFrang stated. “If you make it strong enough to handle a 50-mph crash, more than likely you’ve got victims in the car,” he said. DeFrang reiterated the goal of the new design, “Basically, the intention is to make it a non-perpendicular crash, and the guardrail should hold up for that.”
There will be a gap in the new guardrail where the railroad line crosses Riverview Drive. Asked if there was a risk of motorists crashing through that opening, DeFrang noted that by that point in the corner, northbound drivers will have already started turning west, away from the gap. “For them to come and straighten out when they’re already making that turn … anything is possible, but that’s a lower risk,” he stated.
Construction on the Riverview Drive resurfacing project is slated to begin in late August.