FARGO — Elena Vazquez and others who knew and loved Flor Avila and her 5-year-old daughter are haunted by a belief that a barrier between opposing lanes of interstate traffic could have spared two families from grieving three deaths.

Flor Avila and her daughter, Kayleen, were killed and her son seriously injured on Sunday, July 15, when a pickup truck driven by 15-year-old Connor Radtke veered off the edge of southbound Interstate 29 five miles south of Hankinson, N.D., then overcorrected. The teen driver lost control and careened through the median, colliding head-on with the Avilas. Radtke’s father, 45-year-old James Radtke of West Fargo, was killed.

“Now we have three deaths,” Vazquez said on Tuesday, July 17, recounting a recent conversation with friends who agreed the fatalities were preventable. “If that barrier was there, their dad would be alive and the boy wouldn’t be in such a grave condition.

“We were talking about this with a family friend – why weren’t there any barriers there? It could have saved lives. We have to do something about the roads. Another family should not have to suffer.”

A proven safety measure

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The statistics back up Vazquez’s belief. A growing number of states, including Minnesota, are installing cable median barriers along interstates and other divided highways as a safety measure.

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Cable median barriers are a proven way to prevent cross-median fatal accidents, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Barriers installed on rural four-lane freeways resulted in a 97 percent reduction of cross-median crashes, according to the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.

Nationally, 8 percent of all fatalities on divided highways are due to head-on crashes, according to figures cited by federal highway officials.

Under an initiative called “Toward Zero Deaths,” the Minnesota Department of Transportation began installing cable median barriers throughout the state. Minnesota now has 591 miles of high-tension cable median barriers in place, including 368 miles in Greater Minnesota, with the rest in the Twin Cities metro area.

Nearly 150 lives saved

Minnesota transportation officials credit the cable barriers with saving about 148 lives since the installations began 14 years ago, and say they can reduce fatal cross-median crashes by 95 percent.

No cable median barriers have been installed anywhere in North Dakota, but state transportation officials have made them a priority as they shape future highway projects.

“We do plan to look at areas around the state,” for placement of cable median barriers, said Steve Salwei, director of transportation programs for the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

“Our primary emphasis right now is probably the interstate system,” he said, referring to Interstate 94 and Interstate 29.

Installation of cable median barriers could start as early as 2019, with more possible in the 2020-21 budget, Salwei said.

“It’s a proven safety feature that does help prevent crashes, and that’s why we’ve looked at implementation in North Dakota,” he said.

Investment in cable median barriers in North Dakota will be balanced against other safety needs, Salwei said. North Dakota does have concrete barriers along stretches of interstates in the Fargo and Bismarck areas, he said.

An analysis by North Dakota transportation officials of cross-median crashes during a recent 22-month period identified two fatal crashes and 17 injury crashes. During the same period, Feb. 1, 2016, to Nov. 30, 2017, there were 198 fatal crashes, said Karin Mongeon, who directs the department’s safety division.

“The cross-median crashes are much less frequent than other crash types,” including rear-end collisions and one-car rollovers, she said.

In Minnesota, the cable barriers typically cost about $125,000 to $150,000 per mile to install, although some locations, such as roads with steep side slopes, can impose additional costs, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Crash costs reduced

Minnesota began installing the barriers strategically, in areas deemed to have the greatest risk of collisions. State and federal funds paid for the barrier installations.

In Minnesota’s experience, the barriers reduce crash severity, not the number of crashes. Before installing the barriers, the average crash cost was $63,988 – a figure that was reduced by three-quarters, to $15,287, after installation, according to MnDOT figures in 2012 analyzing cross-median crashes.

Avila’s 4-year-old son, Reeve, who was taken to Sanford Children’s Hospital, was put into an induced coma to reduce brain swelling. A Sanford representative would not disclose Reeve’s condition on Tuesday, saying the family had not given authorization to provide a condition report.

Connor Radtke, who was taken to Essentia Health, was not listed as a patient Tuesday, according to a spokesperson who was asked for a condition report.

Capt. Bryan Niewind of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, which is investigating the crash involving the Avila and Radtke families, said a median barrier “most likely” would have prevented the crash.

“Obviously,” he added, “any time you have a barrier between two roadways it’s going to prevent a collision” between vehicles in lanes separated by a median.

Forum reporter Carissa Wigginton contributed to this report.