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Motorcycle riders see hazards in cable barriers planned for ND interstates

Lonnie Bertsch of North Dakota ABATE is shown with the type of steel cable median barrier that has raised concerns among members of his group. The barriers are planned to be installed in the coming summer months. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Lonnie Bertsch has an analogy for cable median barriers.

"It'll slice just like a cheese grater," said the executive director of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education in North Dakota.

After a risk analysis of the interstate highway system, the North Dakota Department of Transportation plans to install cable median barriers along interstate roadways in Bismarck, Fargo and Grand Forks this summer. Construction costs $6 million, with 90 percent federal funding, 10 percent state.

Further construction is set for Fargo and Mandan in 2020 and 2021.

The barriers consist of three to four strands of high-tension cable held between posts, which Bertsch views as hazardous to motorcycle riders and "destructive" to impacting objects.

Jane Berger, NDDOT programming engineer, said the cable barriers are meant to reduce cross-median crashes — which are often severe — in high-volume, multilane traffic areas.

"When the vehicle hits the cable, the cable absorbs the energy from the vehicle traveling, and it's meant to deflect and redirect the vehicle to keep it from going across the median," Berger said.

Minnesota began installing cable median barriers in 2004, which now cover more than 600 miles of interstate highways, including all of I-94 from Moorhead to the Twin Cities.

A Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesperson said a study of a 10-year period in the state found guardrail or median barrier crashes made up just over one percent of all motorcycle crashes during that time.

According to the study, none of those crashes with a cable median barrier was fatal.

Emma Olson, public affairs coordinator for District 4, said any infrastructure — signs, pavements, bridge structures, other barrier types and concrete barriers — is likely to cause injury to a motorcycle rider if they were to crash into it.

She said where cable median barriers have been installed, MnDOT has seen a 95 percent or greater reduction in severe cross-median crashes.

That safety measure also benefits motorcyclists, Olson said.

She referred to a video on MnDOT’s website that shows a vehicle careening across a median where cable barriers were not in place, almost striking a motorcyclist.

Bertsch said the cable barriers, 3 to 4 feet off the roadway, would eliminate an escape route for motorcycle riders, who can go unseen by other motorists due to their smaller size.

Brad Berg, a Bismarck motorcycle rider, said he sees the barriers as "shredders" and a liability after he recently viewed automotive debris strewn into the median of Minnesota highways from vehicle brushes with barriers.

"Fast forward to summer; it's not going to be car parts laying in the ditch, it's going to be body parts if motorcycles hit that barrier," Berg said.

"If someone takes it upon themselves to put this hazard into the ditch, then they're going to be responsible for anybody that loses a limb or a life."

Berger said NDDOT's research has shown that motorcycle riders would be on the ground before reaching the barrier in the event of a crash.

"According to the data, what we found is that most riders during a crash are actually separated from the motorcycle soon after leaving the pavement," Berger said. "By the time they would reach the barrier, they would have already been basically on the ground."

Berger said NDDOT considered public input and other states' practices in planning the barriers.

She also said the barriers on four-lane freeways have resulted in a 97 percent reduction in cross-median crashes.

Bertsch wondered what damages the cable barriers would pose to vehicles, rather than sliding into the ditch or median in winter, to be pulled out afterward.

He also said he'd like to see the project's money directed toward improving existing infrastructure.

"We have how many miles of roads that need repair? How many bridges in this state need repair?" Bertsch said. "My only solution is to find a better use of that money."

Forum reporter Robin Huebner contributed to this story.