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Vicki Paulson was driving south on Hwy. 10 in Coon Rapids on Tuesday evening when she got an up-close look at the new cable fence running along the median.

"I was flying when I hit that ice," said Paulson, 52, of Elk River. "I bounced into it and it actually pushed me up on the highway again."

Paulson isn't the only driver to get personal with the three-week-old barrier fence. Wednesday morning commuters could see about a dozen crash sites with flattened fence posts or loose cables along the 3.7-mile stretch of fencing. It runs from just east of Hanson Boulevard to west of Round Lake Boulevard on Hwy. 10.

A total of 15.3 miles of cable fence was strung on Twin Cities' highways this year, said Sue Groth, state traffic engineer. Besides Coon Rapids, the fences were erected along Hwy. 36 in Roseville, Crosstown Hwy. 62 in Edina, and Hwy. 252 in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, north of Interstate 694.

Fence locations are chosen based on traffic volume, median narrowness and the number of cross-median crashes, said Groth of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The state has installed 116 miles of the four-cable fences since early 2004 and plans to add another 50 miles next year.

"We love them," said Lt. Mark Peterson of the State Patrol. "We think it saves lives and reduces fatal and serious crashes, especially in weather like this."

Grassy median is narrow

The Coon Rapids stretch was a good fence candidate because it had more than 250 accidents this year and the grassy median is so narrow, said city patrol Sgt. Tim Hawley. He said about half of the five accidents that occurred Wednesday morning involved vehicles hitting the cable barrier.

"It seems to be very helpful in preventing collisions on Hwy. 10," Hawley said. "Some cars would have been launched across into the oncoming lane if that fence hadn't been there."

It was dark, freezing and snowing Tuesday evening when Paulson drove south alone on Hwy. 10 in her family's Ford 250 pickup. She had her seat belt on and was going nearly 50 miles per hour when she hit black ice and spun out just before Hanson Boulevard. Vehicles ahead and behind her also spun out, but didn't collide.

"I didn't touch the brakes or gas -- I knew better than that. I tried to steer but there was nothing you could do," Paulson said. "I spun all the way around once. Then I slid sideways and hit the fence. It kind of bounced me back on the highway. I hit a dry spot and stopped and pulled over."

From 5 fatal crashes to none

The state's first four-cable fence was built along Interstate 94 between Maple Grove and Rogers in 2004, said state engineer Groth. In the three previous years that section had five fatal, cross-median crashes, but it has had none since 2004, she said.

The 42-inch-tall fencing snags and slows a vehicle, Groth said. The cables are strung on steel posts designed to snap off at the base, where they slide into a steel sleeve. After an accident, the remaining stumps slide out easily for a new post to be installed.

Highway workers replace snapped posts as soon as possible, Groth said. She said the state bids out cable fence projects, but figures they cost about $125,000 per mile. A federal highway safety improvement program pays for 90 percent of the cost and the state covers the rest, she said.

Although the Coon Rapids fence broke her vehicle's headlights and dented her bumper and front fenders, Vicki and Dan Paulson figure it did less damage than a concrete median would have.

"You could feel the spring in it," Vicki Paulson said. "It kept me on the right side of the road. ... It damaged my truck. But at least I didn't cross over and hit anybody head-on."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658