Our views: Use extra caution when approaching busy intersections

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

An accident that killed three people Nov. 30 led Gazette reporter Catherine W. Idzerda to examine Rock County intersections with the most crashes between 2000 and 2013.

Idzerda’s research surprised her. She expected to find intersection design flaws. Instead, she learned that crashes at intersections with the most wrecks typically are caused by driver mistakes.

Wisconsin reduced its fatal accidents in 2013 compared to a year earlier. State officials credit more drivers buckling up, slowing down, driving attentively and staying sober.

Idzerda’s report in Monday’s Gazette drives home similar messages: Avoid that distraction, whether it be texting or talking on a cellphone or reaching for a DVD or fast-food sandwich. Don’t lose your patience. Drive defensively.

We might never know exactly what happened in that triple fatality because the 18-year-old Sharon driver died. Investigators say she either drove through the Highway 140 stop sign at Highway 11/14 or did a rolling stop before colliding with a pickup pulling a trailer. It was daylight, and the roads were dry. Her car had gone over rumble strips that warn of the approaching intersection. The signs were in place.

Idzerda discovered one more thing. Officials diligently scrutinize fatal crashes and make changes that try to account for human error. A state expert meets with the Rock County Traffic Safety Commission. They review videos that simulate what drivers saw, including the roads, signs and hazards such as snow, ice and blinding sunlight.

Ryan Mayer, state traffic safety engineer, says stopped drivers should be able to see approaching vehicles at least eight seconds before they reach crossroads. Those stopped on Highway 140 can see vehicles on Highway 11/14 coming from the east 14 seconds in advance. Drivers can see cars coming from the west even longer.

This review after the triple fatality found no intersection engineering flaws. Still, Mayer and committee members discussed adding a second stop sign across Highway 140 and enlarging the stop signs and double-sided arrow sign across from the intersection.

Drivers should applaud that the new Highway 26 bypass around Milton has erased the crossroad where the third-most crashes occurred. Highway 26 at County N north of Milton had 146 accidents from 2000-13. Experts suggest many involved motorists on County N being impatient and underestimating vehicle speeds on Highway 26. The bypass replaced the intersection with an overpass and ramps. Fortunately, it also erased two more crossroads where fatal crashes occurred.

The intersection with the most crashes from 2000-13 was at highways 51 and 14 west of the Rock County Sheriff’s Office. Again, traffic volume heightens risks. But while the state average is one crash per million cars entering an intersection, that crossroad had closer to two per million. A turn arrow added in recent years, however, helped decrease crash frequency.

State officials have one more tool to reduce injury accidents in high-volume intersections. That is the roundabout, which many drivers despise.

Absent installing more of these, however, drivers should heed the warnings: Obey laws requiring you to stay sober and buckle up. Then avoid distractions, be patient and drive defensively—especially when approaching a busy intersection.

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