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Highway 2 in East Grand Forks during Blizzard Dillon on Jan. 22, 2014. (Herald staff photo)

Northeast N.D. had most highway deaths in state this winter

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Ten people have died, including seven this year, in traffic accidents this winter in northeastern North Dakota.

Six of the deaths occurred along Interstate 29 — during periods of hazardous weather conditions, when no-travel warnings or travel advisories were issued, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

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Here is a recap of the wintertime fatal I-29 accidents: 

  •  Dec. 28, 2013. A 33-year-old Winnipeg woman and two young Winnipeg girls died after an accident north of Drayton, N.D., in which their vehicle was struck from behind by a semitrailer during near-zero-visibility blizzard conditions. A no-travel advisory had been issued at the time of the accident, which occurred at about 2 p.m.

According to a report from the Pembina County Sheriff’s Department, Karla Mackenzie, 33, died at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks about 3 hours after the accident.

Three-year-old Evelyn Lau died Jan. 1 in a Minneapolis hospital.

Mackenzie’s 3-year-old daughter, Sophie Conner, died Jan. 14 in the same Twin Cities hospital.

The accident report said the southbound SUV, driven by Steven Conner, 36, Winnipeg, in which they were traveling had slowed or stopped on I-29 when it was struck from behind by the semi driven by Howard Marsh, 57, also of Winnipeg.

No charges were filed in the accident, according to Pembina County Sheriff Brian Erovick.

  •  Jan. 26. A 53-year-old Winnipeg man was struck by a vehicle while he was outside of his tractor-trailer assisting other victims of a weather-related chain-reaction series of crashes one-half mile south of the U.S. Port of Entry, north of Pembina, N.D.

The Highway Patrol said the vehicles were traveling on the snow-covered interstate during blizzard conditions.

No charges were filed.

  •  March 1. Two sisters, ages 20 and 23, died in a one-vehicle rollover accident along I-29 two miles north of Hillsboro, N.D. The Highway Patrol report said road conditions included ice, compacted snow and limited visibility.

16 winter deaths in state

All three I-29 fatal accidents occurred during periods when no-travel advisories or travel alerts had been issued by the North Dakota Department of Transportation, according to accident reports.

Statewide, 16 people have died in 15 accidents this year. Information is not yet available on the role weather played in the accidents, according to Sgt. Tom Iverson, public information officer with the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

So far this year, northeastern North Dakota has accounted for more traffic fatalities than any region in the state. Six have been recorded in the northwest portion, three in the southwest quadrant and none in the southeast corner section.

Preliminary numbers for all of 2013 show 148 people died on roadways throughout the state in 135 fatal crashes, compared with 170 victims and 147 fatal crashes in 2012, according to the Highway Patrol.

A final report, which includes information on accident causes, road conditions and other data, is not yet available for 2013.

In 2012, weather was a contributing factor in 14 fatal crashes.

“We’ve had a number of severe winters since 2009,” said Brad Darr, maintenance division director for NDDOT. “We’re continually reviewing and conferring with the Highway Patrol.”

When to close roads

The long winter and the number of fatalities in North Dakota this year have highlighted how officials decide when to close roads or issue travel warnings or advisories.

So far this year, portions of I-29 and I-94 have been closed for periods ranging from a couple of hours to overnight on five different occasions. Five no-travel advisories and nine travel alerts also have been issued.

NDDOT and the Highway Patrol share the responsibility of deciding whether to close roads or to issue travel advisories or alerts, according to Iverson.

“Each storm presents a different situation — low visibility, no visibility, or maybe heavy snow accumulation,” Iverson said.

The process starts with formal meetings before winter begins, and continues throughout the winter.

“We have troopers out working with DOT staff and crews,” he said. “We confer before the storms. We have good communication between Bismarck and regional commanders and the DOT district engineers.”

NDDOT’s central office then communicates the message to the public, Darr said, through news releases, its www.dot.nd.gov website, and alerts that can be accessed by smart phones.

NDDOT and Highway Patrol also consider decisions made by local governments to close county or other local roads, according to Darr.

“We work with them very closely,” Iverson said.

NDDOT also is called out to help first responders reach accident scenes or to get to medical facilities, according to Darr.

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Kevin Bonham
Kevin Bonham covers news from northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native, who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for nearly 30 years. 
(701) 780-1110
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