Highway 12 bypass remains dangerous
The bad news: The number of crashes continues to climb.
The 6.3-mile bypass around Whitewater’s south side opened in August 2005. It claimed the lives of two people in 2005, three in 2006 and none in 2007.
In the same period, the total number of crashes climbed from 16 in 2005, to 18 in 2006 and 25 in 2007.
“That stretch of road has seen more crashes than we would expect to see on a stretch of road,” said Sgt. Mark Roum of the Walworth County Sheriff’s Department.
A federal report two years ago called for traffic signals, reconfigured turn lanes and better signage and pavement markings.
The result, officials say, is a safer highway, but trouble spots remain: Intersections with stoplights.
When the bypass opened, drivers were cautioned because the bypass had intersections rather than off ramps and on ramps. When the bypass opened, only the intersection of Highway 12 and Walworth Avenue had stop lights. The rest had stop signs.
But after a number of crashes and fatalities, state transportation officials asked federal highway experts to review the design and safety of four new bypasses in the state, including the Whitewater bypass.
The state Department of Transportation started safety improvements on the bypass before the Federal Highway Administration report was completed in February 2006. Stop lights were installed at Highway 89 in November 2005 and flashing stop signs were installed at County P as a temporary fix until stoplights were installed in spring 2006.
The severity of crashes dropped after stop lights were installed—there hasn’t been a fatal crash since July 2, 2006, when two men were killed after colliding head-on just west of County P—but the number of crashes has increased about 40 percent.
Chris Quesnell, a traffic safety engineer for the DOT, said it’s all related to the stoplights.
At County P, for example, the number of crashes tripled after the stoplights were installed.
The stoplights surprise speeding drivers, Quesnell said.
“You have a lot of vehicles that didn’t have any impediment before,” he said.
Many drivers treat the two-lane road as they would a four-lane highway, increasing the potential for crashes, Roum said.
The Whitewater bypass was designed to be expanded to a four-lane divided highway, and it lulls drivers into feeling as if they’re on a freeway, according to the federal report.
“It’s pretty much wide open,” Roum said. “It’s flat, it’s only got a couple of curves, there’s nothing really around it.
“The problem is there are three stop lights they have to deal with.”
Roum said drivers often misjudge the time it takes to get through an intersection before the light turns red.
“You can see the tire marks out there,” he said. “When you’re going 55, 60, 65 mph, and you see the green light ahead of you, you’re not preparing to stop but preparing to run the yellow light.
“That’s the reason you see so many tire marks.”
Quesnell said crashes at intersections with stoplights are “definitely a reoccurring problem,” but there’s only so much the department can do to alert drivers.
After the federal report’s suggestions, the DOT:
-- Installed more and larger speed limit signs.
-- Installed intersection warning signs and street name signs.
“A little extra warning is even more important for a higher speed road,” Quesnell said.
-- Installed islands on westbound Tri County Road.
-- Reconfigured and lengthened left-turn lanes.
“It’s really important to have them long enough so people have room to decelerate,” Quesnell said. “We made them longer than normal.”
The city of Whitewater installed lighting at the intersection with Tri County Road, and the town of Whitewater installed lighting at the intersection with Cox Road. The DOT always installs lighting where stoplights are installed.
“No matter what we do, it’s still a problem,” Quesnell said of crashes at intersections.
When the bypass is converted to a four-lane divided highway, the intersections would become interchanges, improving safety, he said. But that conversion won’t come for at least 20 years.
Until then, it’s left to the Walworth County Sheriff’s Department and Whitewater Police Department to enforce speed laws.
The sheriff’s department used grant money to put more deputies on the bypass in 2006.
“But we lost that grant money, and so we’re left patrolling that road like any other road in the county,” Roum said. “That’s about as far north and west as you can get in our county, and we have a lot more area to cover than just the Whitewater bypass.
“We can only stop so many cars up there.”
Quesnell said the DOT doesn’t have any other safety improvements planned, but the department continues to monitor the bypass.
Roum said drivers need to pay attention and slow down.
“Speed limits are there for a reason,” he said. “They’re not there to inconvenience you.
“A yellow light technically means you should be preparing to stop, not gunning to get the car through before it turns red. If people paid more attention to lights, the crashes we see would decrease.”