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'Nose before your toes': Minnesotans take extra care to avoid falls in icy conditions

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Justyna Sparrow negotiates an icy Ramsey Hill sidewalk.
Justyna Sparrow, of St. Paul, negotiates an icy Ramsey Hill sidewalk as she walks from Frogtown to her West Side home Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Updated: 8 a.m. | Posted: 5:40 a.m.

Many Minnesotans are spending another morning tiptoeing over icy sidewalks and putting their anti-lock brakes to the test. 

Justyna Sparrow of St. Paul says controlling her feet on a slick sidewalk is easier than keeping her car in line on an icy road. 

"A couple of days ago I drove on a pretty icy road and my car slid a little bit and I got scared," Sparrow said. "And I felt I didn't want it to happen again, so I just wanted to avoid it if it's possible."

Instead of driving to work in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, which takes her about 10 minutes on dry pavement, Sparrow went by foot. She put on a pair of hiking boots and walked from her home on the west side, over the High Bridge and up Ramsey Street. As she headed back down that steep hill, Sparrow leaned forward a bit to keep her balance. 

"Put your nose before your toes. That means bend down in the front a little bit so you won't slip," Sparrow instructs.  

Sparrow says this strategy works; she's remained upright so far. But others have not been as fortunate. 

As of Monday night, emergency room physicians at Hennepin Healthcare had treated 70 people for slip-and-fall injuries. And those weren't just cases of broken bones, HCMC says that number includes head injuries, too. Hospitals in the HealthPartners system, including Regions in St. Paul, also saw dozens more patients because of ice-related incidents.

"It was pretty bad. We saw over 70 ice related slips and falls at Regions Hospital," said spokesperson Ashley Burt. "We had 25 slips and falls at Methodist Hospital. And in our valley hospitals, there were 14." 

In Blue Earth County, the sheriff's office says bad weather and icy pavement were factors in a crash that took the life of Matthew Ulmen, 44, of Mankato. Ulmen was heading toward Eagle Lake on County Road 17 when he veered left of center and collided with a pickup truck. The other driver was not injured. 

Blue Earth County authorities did not say how fast Ulmen was going, but Lt. Gordon Shank with the Minnesota State Patrol urges drivers to be mindful of road conditions — particularly in the winter. 

"We need to make sure that we're planning ahead and that we're giving ourselves time to get where we need to go, we're increasing following distances, we are driving to the speed that is going to help us where we're going safely."

MnDOT maintenance drivers make countless judgment calls when temperatures bounce around freezing.     

"The trucks have salt in the back and a way to discharge it. You don't want to have that discharge running if the pavement is just wet. You only want to have it going if it's ice," said MnDOT maintenance director Todd Stevens. "But it's hard to tell where the ice stops and the wet pavement starts and vice versa."

If you've noticed more ice in recent winters, it's not your imagination. Kenneth Blumenfeld with the state climatology office says in the last decade the Twin Cities and Duluth have seen an increasing number of winter days where there's both precipitation and highs above 32 degrees.

"These would be the days where it rains in some part of the day or maybe you have a wet snow that melts when it hits the surface, but then the temperature drops back down below freezing either later that day or sometime the next day. We seem to, this decade especially, see a pretty big increase in those kinds of instances," he said.

Blumenfeld says the vast majority of our winter precipitation still falls as snow, but the type of weather that gives rise to slippery roads and sidewalks is one of the subtle ways Minnesota's climate is changing.

MPR News Reporter Elizabeth Dunbar contributed reporting for this story.