Lifesaving cable barriers also bring risks to highway workers who fix them
A North Dakota Department of Transportation employee was seriously hurt last week when he was hit by a car while repairing a cable median barrier.
FARGO — Steel cable barriers installed along interstate medians are proven to prevent one of the deadliest types of crashes, but the traffic safety tool also presents a different kind of risk to the workers who install and maintain them.
The high-tension cables have been struck 118 times at various locations since 2019 when the first barriers were installed, said the North Dakota Department of Transportation.
Each time, the damaged barrier must be fixed, and the risk to those who do it was evidenced just last week.
A DOT employee repairing a previously-damaged cable median barrier was seriously injured when he was struck and pinned by a wayward vehicle.
Ryan Jamieson, 46, of West Fargo, was working along Interstate 94 near Casselton around 1 p.m. on Nov. 23 when a westbound vehicle driven by Charles Hart, 62, of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, went astray and pinned Jamieson against the barrier.
Jamieson was freed by another DOT worker and taken by ambulance to Sanford Medical Center, the Highway Patrol said. No condition report is available for Jamieson.
On Thursday, Dec. 1, Highway Patrol Capt. Bryan Niewind said possible charges against Hart haven’t yet been forwarded to county prosecutors because the crash investigation is ongoing.
The incident occurred despite three advance warning signs set up by the DOT, including two arrow boards directing drivers, the earlier crash report said.
A Cadillac Escalade driven by Hart did not move out of the closed left lane as directed and hit a plow displaying an arrow board, a DOT pickup parked in front of the plow and then Jamieson.
While presenting an additional risk to highway workers who maintain them, high-tension cable median barriers can be a lifesaver to drivers.
The barriers keep vehicles from crossing the median and striking oncoming traffic, head on.
When hit, the posts break and the cables flex, absorbing the impact and “catching” the vehicle along the cables, rather than pushing it back into the roadway.
Minnesota began installing the barriers in 2004 and has well over 700 miles of them crisscrossing the state, according to the Minnesota DOT website.
They’re frequently placed nearer the shoulder of the roadway, because median ditches are often wet and too soft to support the cable and allow it to perform as designed.
North Dakota’s first cable median barriers were installed along 5-mile stretches of interstate in Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck.
While the DOT cannot confirm every cable median barrier hit represents a “saved” head-on collision, keeping vehicles from crossing the median is the most effective way to prevent those crashes, said DOT spokesperson David Finley.
In fact, he said the barriers reduce the risk of vehicles entering oncoming traffic by 97%
“This is just one of many tools in our safety engineering toolbox that we use to reduce the likelihood of a severe or fatal crash in North Dakota,” he said.
When damage to a cable barrier is identified, repairs are made as soon as possible.
Niewind said roadways are kept open with lane closures in place while repairs are made.
“This creates the chance of a maintenance worker being struck during the repair,” he said.
Finley said when an employee on duty is injured, the DOT reviews its safety measures to see if protocols can be improved.
But all drivers need to do their part, slowing down and moving over when they see flashing lights, and keeping distractions to a minimum.
Niewind said the focus should be solely on changing conditions, which could include construction zones, maintenance work, animals or debris on the roadway, parked or approaching emergency responders and “countless” other things.
The risk for those maintaining cable median barriers is certain to increase as many more miles are installed in the future.
At the start of 2022, North Dakota had just 19 miles of cable median barrier in place but added 73 more miles of it this year.
One of its most recent projects was a combination of concrete barrier and cable barrier along I-94 in Fargo, spanning from I-29 west to Sheyenne Street. To the east, concrete median barriers have been in place on I-94 between I-29 and Fargo's border with Moorhead for years.
The estimated cost was just over $2 million, with the federal government covering 90% and the state paying 10%.
Eventually, median barriers are expected to cover the entire interstate highway system in North Dakota; more than 350 miles along I-94 and more than 215 miles along I-29.