ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The horrific traffic accident at the intersection of U.S. Highway 56 and North Ash that claimed the life of a McPherson woman Wednesday has renewed concern about the stretch of the highway that runs along Hillsboro’s northern edge.
Marie A. Barker, 79, a former vice president of McPherson Bank & Trust, was killed when her car was struck head-on by a Kenworth semi driven by Mitchell W. Sherman of Hutchinson.
According to the Kansas Highway Patrol, Barker was eastbound on U.S. 56 in a 1991 Buick when she crossed the center line and clipped the back of a semitrailer pulled by a 1993 Kenworth driven by Alan D. Rupp of Colby.
The contact spun Barker’s car into the path of the second semi. The ensuing impact all but obliterated the front end of Barker’s vehicle.
The truck driven by Sherman skidded across the highway’s eastbound lane, left the roadway, crashed through the fence along the northern boundary of the Alco lot, and came to a stop about 30 yards from the highway.
Barker was pronounced dead at the scene. The Jaws of Life were required to extricate her body from the car.
Sherman, meanwhile, was taken to Hillsboro Community Medical Center, where he was treated and released. Rupp was not hospitalized.
Glenn Thiessen, director of environmental services at Parkside Homes in Hillsboro, was in the Alco parking lot when the accident occurred.
“I heard a bang, looked up and saw a semi plow head-on with the car,” he said. “Parts just went everywhere, like the car exploded.”
Thiessen said he ran to the scene immediately, called Parkside on his two-way radio and told them to call 911.
“When I got there, it was obvious there wasn’t anything I could do,” he said. “I wanted to reach in (the Barker car) and see if I could get a pulse, but I couldn’t even get in there.”
According to Thiessen, Rupp said that when he saw Barker’s car crossing the center line, he tried to steer onto the shoulder of the highway to avoid impact. Rupp’s vehicle suffered minimal damage.
Hillsboro Police Chief Dan Kinning, who arrived on the scene shortly after the Kansas Highway Patrol, said he learned later that Barker’s husband had died in a car accident two weeks earlier. Their son had been killed in an accident a few months before that.
This latest incident was one of several accidents or near misses to occur at the intersection of Ash and U.S. 56 since 1966, when the speed limit on federal highways in Kansas was raised from 55 to 65 mph.
Though this accident was not directly related to the intersection and could have happened along any stretch of highway, it did renew concern about the safety of the two miles of U.S. 56 from the Industrial Park east of Hillsboro, on west past Hillsboro Heights.
Part of the problem is that many drivers aren’t abiding by the 65 mph speed limit.
Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker said the KHP is currently understaffed by 77 troopers and has not been flying its patrol airplane in recent months. As a result, it’s been harder for troopers to regulate traffic speed on U.S. 56 and other highways.
“You’ve got to figure that many motorists are exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph, and some are driving a lot faster than that,” he said.
But even if drivers adhered to the speed limit, local officials believe 65 mph is simply too fast, given the traffic flow around the Industrial Park and Hillsboro Heights.
“I’m not so much concerned about people driving over the speed limit,” Kinning said. “I think the speed limit there needs to be lowered.”
He said a lower speed limit won’t stop drivers along North Ash or other intersections from pulling out into oncoming highway traffic, “but it’s going to give people on the highway more time to react.”
Mayor Delores Dalke said she wrote the Kansas Department of Transportation more than a year ago and asked them to reduce the speed limit along that stretch after several senior citizens expressed their concerns about the speed of highway traffic.
“(KDOT’s) response was there hadn’t been enough indication that it was a dangerous intersection, based on the number of accidents,” she said. “They didn’t see any reason for reducing the speed limit at this time.”
According to KDOT staff, 12 accidents causing two injuries occurred over the three-mile stretch from Kanza Road northeast of Hillsboro to K-15 Highway west of town from 1996 through 1999.
In April 2000, Brian Chamberlain, Hillsboro, was seriously injured in an accident at the corner of Ash and U.S. 56.
Kinning said he would like the speed limit lowered along the entire stretch from the Industrial Park to past Hillsboro Heights.
“My concern now is, with the new section they’re developing (in the Industrial Park), we’re gong to see even more traffic there, and I think we’re going to have potential for another problem intersection.”
Dalke said she will be writing another letter to KDOT to ask them to reconsider their position on the speed limit.
Her urgency is based partly on personal experience. Not too long ago, she said, Dalke narrowly avoided an accident when an elderly driver pulled onto U.S. 56 without even stopping at the intersection near Sonic Drive-In.
“If I had been driving an 18-wheeler loaded down, I wouldn’t have been able to stop-I would have run right over her car,” Dalke said. “There was traffic coming from the other direction and there was nothing you could have done.”
Dalke would like KDOT to reduce the speed to 55 mph through that area. She said some people would like to see the speed limit even lower, but she doesn’t think it’s necessary or advantageous.
“I think if we start asking for too low a speed limit, then pretty soon people are going to start avoiding this highway again,” she said. “We don’t want accidents, but there has to be a happy medium some place.”