Roadside rumbles cause a grumble

Barbara Hinsz grew accustomed to the quiet at her home just off St. Louis County Road 4 south of Biwabik. Evenings would get so peaceful that she could sit on a lawn chair and hear her llamas chew their hay.

A car drives over a rumble stripe along County Road 4 on Thursday south of Biwabik. New highway safety guidelines required the strips to be moved 12 inches toward the center of the road and onto the fog line, turning the old rumble "strip" into a rumble "stripe." (Bob King /

Barbara Hinsz grew accustomed to the quiet at her home just off St. Louis County Road 4 south of Biwabik. Evenings would get so peaceful that she could sit on a lawn chair and hear her llamas chew their hay.

But Hinsz says a well-intentioned effort to make rural highways safer has ruined her rural serenity.

Thanks to a federally funded highway safety effort, county crews gouged new "rumble stripes" along the highway this summer, but not in their usual place midway in the shoulder. New highway safety guidelines call for the rumble strips to go on the so-called fog line, the continuous white stripe that separates the driving lane from the shoulder.

The problem seems to be the

12-inch move from rumble strips on the shoulder to rumble stripes on the fog line. Instead of serving as an infrequent jolt to remind drifting drivers to return to the driving lane, critics say a reverberating rumble is happening whenever a car or truck strays just a bit to the right. It's especially bad on curves, including where Hinsz lives.


Over Labor Day weekend, "I sat down to watch a little TV but had to turn it up so I could hear it. With the windows closed," Hinsz said. "The Fourth of July was a treat, too. Just one after another.''

Logging trucks, cars puling boats and campers, impaired drivers, inattentive drivers, tourists gawking at the scenery -- Hinsz says it seems just about everyone is drifting out of the driving lane just enough to drive over the rumble stripe. Even far down the road, the rumble reverberates into her yard and even into her house.

Neighbors to the new rumble stripes, including some who live a quarter-mile or more off the road, say it's keeping them awake at night. Lake homeowners say it's hurting their property values in addition to their rural lifestyle.

"If you are outside, you can't have a conversation," Hinsz said. "Sometimes we get two cars, going both ways, who hit them at the same time. That's really special."

Saving lives

The new stripes line about 80 miles of highway along County Road 4 south of Biwabik, County Road 77 near Tower, County Road 21 between Ely and Babbitt and County Road 5 between Hibbing and Side Lake. And it's part of a national trend.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, as part of its Toward Zero Deaths campaign, is adopting rumble stripes across the state's system of two-lane highways, such as state Highway 210 west of Interstate 35 which has rumble stripes on the fog line. Michigan already is moving to add side and center rumble stripes on all two-lane highways to help prevent crashes.

St. Louis County highway officials say the bothersome noise is unfortunate, but the increased safety makes rumble stripes worthwhile. Highway officials think the rumble will cut "run-off-the-road" accidents by 40 percent, based on studies by the Federal Highway Administration.


Over the last 10 years, more than 132 people were killed or seriously injured driving off St. Louis County highways, said Vic Lund, highway safety engineer for the county. It's the leading cause of rural highway accidents, with drowsy or distracted drivers leading the way.

"We don't have many cost-effective measures we can use that are proven to save lives, but rumble strips and rumble stripes are one of them," Lund said.

Since the rumble stripes were gouged in July and August, Lund has received more than 65 calls from angry residents about the noise. He said county highway officials expected complaints, but probably weren't expecting the level of anger.

Lund said he expects noise complaints to diminish as drivers get used to the stripes "because drivers generally want to avoid being on them, so they pay more attention. And that's a good thing. ... They also slow down on the curves to avoid them, and that's a good thing."

"My job is to advocate for highway safety. And when it's a call between a noise complaint and saving lives, we are going to fall on the side of saving lives," Lund said.

Commissioners will weigh-in

Some residents along the newly striped miles are asking the county to move the new strips out onto the shoulder. But Lund said that would eliminate an added safety benefit: the three dimensional effect on the white line that the gouges afford. On roads with narrower shoulders, it also offers more reaction time for drivers wandering off the road.

"Striping along the line really improves visibility in low light, especially in wet conditions. It makes the line that much easier to see," Lund said. "Especially as our population of drivers ages, the visibility issue becomes even more important."


But County Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely, who represents the northern half of the county, said he's told county public works officials to stop cutting rumble stripes on any road in his district.

"I've told the highway department that they can put rumble stripes anywhere they want, but not in the

4th district. Our people can't live with them," Forsman said. "I've talked to truck drivers who say there is no way they can stay in their lane around a curve and keep the rear wheels off the rumble stripes. It's not possible."

Forsman said he has no problem with traditional rumble strips off on the shoulder. But moving them to the edge of the driving lane was ill conceived, he said.

Despite Forsman's and residents' complaints, Lund said the county is moving ahead with plans to gouge rumble stripes along another 110 miles of county highway in 2011. More than 300 miles of county highway are eligible for striping if the federal highway safety money, which pays 90 percent of the cost, holds out.

Not so fast, said Forsman, who has placed rumble stripes on the agenda for the county board's Committee of the Whole meeting on Sept. 28 when commissioners meet at the Greenwood Township Hall near Tower. The board could vote to withhold county matching money, or could order the highway department to move the stripes out onto the shoulder.

"We're certainly going to stop doing any more of these, and I think we can" fill in the new rumble stripes and move them out to the shoulder, Forsman said. "I don't think that will threaten any federal money."


Biwabik resident unhappy about rumblestripes
Barbara Hinsz, who lives south of Biwabik, is upset with the new "rumble stripes" placed on County Road 4. She says the noise from cars and trucks running over the stripes is disruptive. (Bob King /

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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