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Eagan grieves as lawmakers look to Diffley Road safety solutions

After the sudden loss of 13-year-old Patric Vitek, the discussion over Diffley Road safety has become even more paramount

EAGAN, Minn. — Things only got more difficult for the Eagan community on Friday after the sudden loss of 13-year-old Patric Vitek in a bicycle accident, as the shock of the morning turned to overwhelming grief by afternoon and evening. 

Following a private candlelight vigil at center ice at 6 p.m., fewer than 12 hours after Vitek was struck by a car while riding to school, the seventh-grader's teammates at the Eagan Hockey Association swallowed their grief and honored him by playing a short scrimmage. The scoreboard at Eagan Civic Arena stood still, with no time or game score listed. Instead, it flashed the words "Patric Vitek," and the number "5." After the scrimmage, hundreds of other parents and their children gathered outside the Eagan Civic Arena, holding candles high into the air as they stood silent for about a half-hour in Vitek's memory.

Vitek's death stunned this suburb and the close-knit community in District 196, where Vitek attended Dakota Hills Middle School. The 13-year-old was on his way there around 7:20 a.m. Friday when a driver collided with his back bicycle tire on Diffley Road, a major thoroughfare near at least three schools. Beyond that, exact details are unclear, although police said the driver stayed on scene and has cooperated with investigators. 

"We're still trying to piece those things together," Eagan Police Chief Roger New said. "So I don't want to speculate as to what potentially happened."

It is clear, however, that safety on this particular corridor of Diffley Road has been a major point of concern for Dakota County, the state of Minnesota, the city of Eagan and neighbors who live in the immediate area. Dakota County maintains the road and held meetings as recently as February about possible improvements, specifically at the nearby intersection of Diffley and Braddock but encompassing the half-mile stretch where the crash scene occurred.

According to documents on the county's website about the Feb. 11 community meeting, a county transportation engineer reported that the three intersections on this stretch "have had crash rates and severity less than or equal to averages of similar intersections statewide." However, the community expressed concerns about "high speeds near school," as well as the safety of pedestrian crossing at Daniel Drive, just a few hundred yards from the spot where Vitek lost his life Friday morning.

State Senator Jim Carlson (DFL-51), who represents Eagan and attended the candlelight vigil, said Friday that he's also had lengthy discussions about safety on Diffley.

"I can hardly put into words," Carlson said, "because we knew this road was a problem."

Carlson proposes building a tunnel under Diffley, though it's unclear how much that would cost or whether it's feasible.

"When parents take their kids there to drop them off, there's just a raff of kids crossing," Carlson said. "I've already written our city engineer, street engineer, saying, 'we've got to meet as quickly as possible.'"

Carlson said the city and state should have some influence, despite the fact Diffley is a county road.

In a statement, Dakota County Manager Matt Smith confirmed the county has had ongoing discussions about safety near these schools.

"We are saddened by this tragic accident and offer our condolences to the family. Dakota County values safety on and near our roadways, above all else," Smith said. "We have and will continue to work with the City of Eagan and School District 196 to address safety concerns along Diffley Road and the surrounding area. In addition, Dakota County is studying all school zone areas adjacent to our highways in a further effort to ensure safety."

RELATED: Eagan student fatally struck on bicycle

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