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Motorists take a gamble at dangerous intersection

A number of factors conspire to make the Highway 61 and County Road 18 intersection one of the most dangerous in southeast Minnesota, says Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

The intersection is a meeting point between commuters leaving the Treasure Island Resort & Casino and highway traffic racing by at over 65 mph. A curvy highway limits sightlines for commuters as they cross up to four lanes of traffic, he said.

"It's certainly not the safest spot," said Murphy, who heads the state's transportation committee and said he has lost a friend to an accident at the intersection.

An accident there Wednesday that left Maxine Pruitt, 52, Red Wing, and Delores Weir, 82, Vermillion, Minn., with non-life threatening injuries is one more in a long list of both serious and minor collisions that have occurred at the intersection over the years.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation reported a total of 33 crashes there from 2005 to 2009, giving it the fifth highest accident rate in the southeast region. One person was killed and 11 people were injured in that time span, according to MnDOT data.

According to the State Patrol, the collision Wednesday occurred when Pruitt's 1996 Geo Prism was westbound on County Road 18 attempting to turn south on Highway 61 while Weir's 2001 Mercury Marquis was headed north on Highway 61.

Both drivers were wearing seat belts, according to the State Patrol, and alcohol was not believed to be a factor in the crash.

As of Friday afternoon, Pruitt had been discharged from Region's Hospital in St. Paul. Weir was listed in fair condition.

Most accidents at the intersection are similar right-angle collisions, according to MnDoT officials.

But officials say the danger isn't one of design. Spokeswoman Kristin Kammueller pointed to features designed to slow down traffic and ease motorists' transition onto the highway, including intersection lights on County Road 18, a rumble strip in place on Highway 61 and a median acceleration lane for southbound travelers.

"We have safety measures in place," she said.

Murphy agreed, saying the "intersection is not poorly designed."

But he argued that more could be done to slow down traffic on Highway 61. As it stands now, he said, many motorists headed in both directions on the highway have no indication that there is a well-used intersection ahead.

"With driving, it's an issue of perception," he said. "You know how it is, you tend to drive faster out in the country."

Murphy, who is retiring from the Senate at year's end, proposed highly visible signs to alert motorists of the intersection. He said he would support other ideas to slow down traffic.

"There needs to be some traffic calming," he said.