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What's the story with Perham's uncontrolled intersections?

Does Perham have an unusually high number of uncontrolled intersections?

That question was posed to members of the city council at their June meeting, by a man who recently relocated to town from the East Coast.

Wayne Romer said he was surprised by the number of uncontrolled intersections he encountered after moving to Perham, having never seen so many of them anywhere else he’s lived or traveled.

He questioned it mainly out of curiosity, he said, wondering why the city doesn’t put up more stop or yield signs, and expressing concern that intersections without signage or stop lights might pose a greater safety risk.

A few chuckles and knowing looks among councilors and city staff revealed that Romer has not been the first to question the city’s uncontrolled intersections.

“That’s the way it’s always been in Perham” may be the old response to such questions, Romer said, but it may not be good enough. He contended that the issue was worth looking to, especially if crash rates were indeed higher at uncontrolled intersections than those with signage.

But are they?

It’s hard to say. Numbers provided to the Focus by Perham Police Chief Jason Hoaby last week show that more crashes occur at controlled intersections than uncontrolled – but those numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

In 2013, there were a total of 34 crashes at intersections in Perham. Of those, 23 were at controlled intersections and 11 were at uncontrolled intersections.

In 2012, 12 crashes were at controlled intersections, while three were at uncontrolled intersections. In 2011, those numbers were 16 and five, respectively.

So, for the past three years, there have been two to three times as many crashes at intersections with signage than at intersections without.

At face value, these numbers seem to imply that uncontrolled intersections are actually safer than those that have signage or lights, since there are fewer accidents at them.

But, when considering that Perham has far fewer uncontrolled intersections than controlled, those numbers get less impressive.

Of an estimated 266 intersections in town, about 79, or 30 percent, are uncontrolled. Another 154 have at least one stop sign, 30 have yield signs and three have stoplights, according to a map provided by Perham Public Works.

It stands to reason that more accidents are occurring at controlled intersections, since there are more than twice as many of them.

Traffic volumes at the intersections must also be taken into account. Uncontrolled intersections are located in quieter parts of town, with less traffic, so it’s only natural that fewer accidents would occur there.

According to Hoaby, accidents happen at intersections, whether there’s signage or not.

“Usually accidents are a result of distractions, more than anything else, at both controlled and uncontrolled intersections,” he said at the meeting. “People need to slow down and be careful at all intersections, and not everyone does that.”

According to information from the Minnesota State Patrol, provided by Hoaby, the primary causes of significant accidents are illegal or unsafe speed, driver inattention or distraction and driver inexperience. (A ‘significant’ accident is one that causes $1,000 or more in damage and/or results in personal injury or death.)

While it’s hard to draw a hard line on the safety question, Romer’s other question – whether Perham has a high number of uncontrolled intersections – has a clearer answer.

In short, yes; at least when compared to other cities of similar populations in the region.

In Park Rapids, Minn., population 3,681 – slightly larger than Perham’s 3,010 population – there are zero uncontrolled intersections, according to a city representative. Every intersection there is controlled in some way, shape or form.

Staples, Minn., also has no uncontrolled intersections, as far as city workers could recall during a brief phone interview on Friday. Staples has a population of 2,931.

In Barnesville, Minn., population 2,560, there are only “four or five” uncontrolled intersections, a city representative said.

Long Prairie, Minn., may be more similar to Perham than the other communities contacted – a city employee there said roughly 25 percent of Long Prairie’s intersections are uncontrolled, though that was just a “wild guess.” Long Prairie’s population is 3,409.

Long-time Perham community leader and current council member, Harriet Mattfeld, said at the meeting that the city once hired a consultant to conduct a study on intersections, years ago. This consultant made recommendations about where to put signage or not, based on traffic flow and other factors, she said.

City Hall staff could find no record of the study.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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