Truck-train accident victim ponders 'what ifs' of crash
By Rich Glennie
A matter of inches, a matter of seconds, or a matter of different circumstances and the results could have been very different.
That is what Charlotte Bruns has been mulling over since her encounter with a train on July 13.
Bruns, one arm in a sling, both legs bandaged, 15 stitches in her head, two black eyes and an assortment of bumps and bruises, has been pondering the "what ifs" of the near-tragic collision.
The accident occurred on the morning of July 13 on County Road 15 (Falcon Avenue) near her rural Lester Prairie home. She was on her way to Glencoe to pick up her son, Nicholas, 8.
She was traveling the posted 40 mph speed limit when out of the trees came a Dakota Rail locomotive.
"I've been here three years, and I've never seen a train (on those tracks)," Bruns said.
She said by the time she spotted the slow-moving train, it was too late. She veered to the left, but struck the locomotive's plow, and the train dragged the vehicle a short distance down the tracks.
If she had been further into the crossing, or had she not been wearing her seatbelt, she might not have survived the collision in her 1989 Chevrolet Blazer, which was totaled. As it was, she was thrown into the windshield by the impact.
She may not have survived the collision in a smaller vehicle either.
Bruns said had she brushed her teeth a few seconds more, she might not have been at the crossing at all. Or what if her son had been with her?
The list of "what ifs" goes on and on.
What Bruns said she definitely knows is that there was a guardian angel looking out for her that morning.
What she also knows is that something has to be done with that "blind crossing" that is a disaster waiting to happen.
Bruns said some people have not taken her accident seriously and blamed her for not being more careful, "but it could happen to anyone. It was just bad timing on my part. I saw my life flash in front of my eyes."
What Bruns wants is for people to be aware of these "blind" crossings, not only on County Road 15 but at other intersections with the Dakota Line out of Hutchinson. Those restricted sight intersections are located on County Road 4, County Road 2 and on Highway 261 as well.
She said she wants stop signs at those "blind crossings" that partially obscure sight of a train that emerges from the trees and into the intersection.
If not stop signs, then some red signal lights should be installed, Bruns said.
But most of all, "I'd like the trees removed."
That may be easier said than done, however.
A neighbor, Randy Vasko, said the trees on the north side of the tracks are on the railroad property. He agreed there is a need for some clean up of the vegetation in that area.
But Vasko and his family, who have lived near the tracks for the past 16 years, said he has seen at least 10 crashes with trains in that time, "and they happen all year round." The vegetation may not be the only problem.
Vasko said there is about one train a day that passes through the area.
He said the train generally slows down at the crossing, and if the intersection is clear, then proceeds through.
But since the crash, Vasko said the railroad engineer has been very careful. "I think now you can hear the (train) whistle from Lester Prairie."
Vasko said the volume of highway traffic has grown considerably on County Road 15 since he moved there.
MnDOT said its figures indicate 540 cars a day cross that intersection, but Vasko said it is more than that.
He said drivers' habits vary. Some almost stop at the intersection, while others never slow down.
County highway engineer Rick Kjonaas said the crossings often involve the state and the railroad as well as the county. At other times, there are private property owners involved as well.
He said if the sight restrictions are too great, stop signs are installed, as is the case on County Road 4.
But Kjonaas said some experts think stop signs cause more harm than good because people often ignore them on low-volume tracks like the Dakota Rail's line.
Kjonaas said periodic recommendations are sent to the Minnesota Department of Transportation on crossing safety issues, especially after accidents.
He said a lot of MnDOT's decisions are based on the number of accidents, sight distance issues, the number of trains and volume of vehicle traffic among other things.
He said MnDOT has stringent guidelines it follows during a review process.
As to the trees that line the tracks, Kjonaas said the railroad normally has a 50-foot right-of-way on either side of the tracks.
Both the county and railroad have right-of-ways, but when the tracks reach the intersection with the county's road right-of-way, the railroad's authority supercedes the county's, Kjonaas said.
The crossing signs at the intersections are the property of the railroad, he said. The other highway signs, like the "Watch for trains" signs prior to the intersection, belong to the county.
Kjonaas stressed the need for vehicle drivers to use care at all times when approaching railroad crossings.
Tim Spencer, a spokesman for MnDOT's division of freight, railroads and waterways, agreed that caution is required from drivers.
But he admits that is not easy to do.
"It's frustrating," Spencer said of train-vehicle accidents. He said about 70 percent of such accidents occur at crossings with signals where the driver gets impatient or is inattentive.
"We don't call them accidents," Spencer said. "We call them crashes or collisions because most are preventable."
He said educating drivers about the dangers of railroad crossings may be the best approach at prevention.
If visibility is a problem, and it cannot be resolved, a stop sign may be recommended for crossings like that on County Road 15. But Spencer said only the state transportation commissioner can approve a stop sign, it cannot be done by the county on its own.
He said the state has little legal authority to force a railroad or private landowner to clear trees from their property, but it can notify the railroad or landowner of the hazard and request they address the issue.
Spencer said there are several solutions to these problem crossings.
One is to install flashing lights, but they cost between $100,000 and $150,000 apiece, and Spencer said they are usually placed in areas with high volume train traffic. He said that does not apply to Dakota Rail.
Second is to install stop signs. Spencer said the stop signs are designed for areas with high rail traffic and low vehicle traffic.
He agreed with Kjonaas and said stop signs often cause more accidents than they prevent because some drivers stop, while others do not and that results in fenderbenders.
He also said if drivers become accustomed to not seeing trains and ignore the stop signs, they may go to an area with higher train traffic where ignoring the stop signs could prove tragic.
A third option is to close a crossing. "That's a high priority with MnDOT," Spencer said. "We need to get that option on the table."
See also: last week's story on crash
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