Twenty-seven-year-old Paige Duncan's week began motoring westward in her Ford Fusion on Highway 12. The Bloomington woman was about 25 miles west of downtown Minneapolis when slick roads commandeered her ride, skidding it sideways over the center line and into oncoming traffic near Independence.
She was killed a little before 8 a.m. on February 15 after a Cadillac DeVille T-boned her sedan. Duncan's death brought the count to 21 fatalities on Highway 12 since 2010, including five since August.
Highway 12 goes from Orono all the way to the South Dakota border. But it's a 38-mile segment from Wayzata through Wright County that has the highest fatal crash rate in the Twin Cities for a two-lane highway, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
The stretch leading away from the upper crust western suburbs is quickly swallowed by the Minnesota plains. The lanes are narrow, the route often unlit, curvy, and undulating. Uncontrolled intersections add to the obstacles.
Highway 12 today isn't much different than it was a half-century ago. But new homes with big yards and affordable mortgage payments have made for skyrocketing traffic counts with bedroom commuters.
There have been 811 crashes over the past five years on a highway originally built in the 1930s.
Therein lies the problem, according to Chief Gary Kroells of the West Hennepin Public Safety Department.
"It's a number's game," he says. "We have metro levels of traffic on a road that's been left — with a few minor exceptions — unimproved for 35 to 45 years, maybe as far back as the 1960s."
The rising body count would suggest Highway 12 requires a much steeper investment. For that, Kroells points north to Highway 23, the 53-mile stretch between Willmar and Interstate 94, where tens of millions of dollars have been invested in doubling the size of what was a two-lane road. The remaining 15 miles of unconverted road are in the planning stages.
"It comes down to money," says Kroells. "What I know is we've got metro area-like traffic counts on a highway where improvements in safety has been no more than in the tens of thousands [of dollars]."
MnDot currently has no plans to widen Highway 12 over the next 20 years.