ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
In the aftermath of the collision two weeks ago that killed two teenagers at the junction of U.S. highways 50 and 77 just north of Florence, the question arises: Would the stop signs a crew began installing there last week have saved them?
To that question, Marion County residents who are circulating petitions demanding an overpass be built at the intersection answer: “No-a four-way stop wouldn’t have saved them. But an overpass would have.”
The deaths of Alison Teri Cady, 16, of Marion and Lyndsay Rae Sherbert, 15, of Kinsley touched the lives of many in Marion County, including some Kansas Department of Transportation employees.
“I knew both families,” said area KDOT engineer Joe Palic, who oversees the installation of highway signs and signals.
Despite the grief shared by many in the community and petitions circulated to place more signals or construct an overpass at the deadly intersection, Palic said he and other KDOT personnel recognize the decision to install new signs actually was made under standard procedures completed prior to the accident.
By the end of last week, holes had been dug to change the intersection to a four-way stop, Palic said, and installation would be completed as soon as the power company was ready for electrical connections.
Each of the oversized-48-inch instead of the standard 36-inch-stop signs will have flashing red beacons with 12-inch lenses at the upper left corners.
“Stop Ahead” signs with “bouncing lights”-amber-colored lights that flash at the top of sign and then at the bottom-also are being installed on U.S. 50. There won’t be any overhead lights.
“There has been talk of what to do at that intersection for as long three or four years ago because we know it’s been bad in the past,” Palic said.
“We’ve tried things that draw more attention to the intersection, notifying Highway 50 traffic to slow down for a busy intersection ahead (and adding) the sign warning Highway 77 traffic to look again because Highway 50 traffic doesn’t stop.
“We removed all the trees that could block vision. We keep it mowed. We check all signs, and move any that could interfere with line of sight.
“There’s been three fatalities at that intersection this year alone, one in February was from out-of-state. But when you get local young people like this, it really brings it home to the local population. We rebuilt the intersection in 1993, and there hadn’t been any accidents for a year until the recent ones.”
One theory, suggested by some, speculates that an optical illusion is involved when drivers of vehicles entering the intersection look to the west. Rather than seeing the highway, they may be focusing on the service station there.
Palic said that theory is tempting, but it goes against the prevailing accident pattern at the junction.
He said accidents at the intersection-just as with the two girls-most often happen when drivers of northbound vehicles on U.S. 77 fail to yield to westbound vehicles on U.S. 50.
He said, as in this latest case, most U.S. 77 vehicles involved in accidents are nearly 40 feet from the stop sign, having crossed a 10-foot shoulder and two 12-foot lanes, before the collision occurs.
Palic said the DOT system for installing new signs involves engineers in Topeka monitoring road safety for years with an audit conducted on a county-by-county basis. The engineers, he said, look for highway locations that seem to stand out in having more accidents.
“This one stood out,” he said.
DOT has to make decisions in the midst of what has become a tragic situation for Kansas and the nation, he said, because of the number of people dying in traffic accidents.
Although his tendency also is to focus on the local tragedy, Palic said he hoped he wouldn’t appear “too calloused” in pointing out to grieving people that concern needs to be extended to what is happening statewide.
He said Kansas is losing 500 persons a year in traffic accidents-more than one person each day. Since the local tragedy, three traffic fatalities occurred in Saline County and three in Ellsworth County, he said.
“We are not alone in this, but it becomes too real when it’s close to home,” he said. “Driving is a dangerous thing to do that we do routinely.”
He said 43,000 traffic fatalities occur nationwide now. For several years the total hovered around 40,000, but the number appears to be growing.
“It’s kind of sobering,” Palic said. “That’s a city the size of Salina disappearing from our population every year.”
Proponents of the overpass petition cite the particular long-standing accident record of the Florence highway junction, and criticize DOT for not also immediately lowering speed limits on the approach to the intersection as well as installing signs.
They contend that traffic approaching the intersection at speeds of 65 and 70 mph on the curves of U.S. 50 from both directions could turn the four-way stop into a death trap.
Each time 100 new names are signed to petitions, the circulators send copies to the governor, legislators, legislative leaders, DOT leaders, the Marion County Commission, and all city mayors and councilmen within the county.
Many petitioners have taken time to write comments.
Lois Jean Bailey said she has been a Florence resident 54 years, and has seen accidents at the intersection since the day the highway was finished. As an ambulance volunteer for 19 years, she said she saw many accidents, “some so terrible that they stay in your memory forever.”
Delano O’Dell, who was Florence police chief for 20 years, and his wife, Barbara O’Dell, who also was a member of the Florence Ambulance Service, said they remembered many accidents, including the death of an infant.
They said a four-way stop would make the intersection more dangerous, and only an overpass that would keep traffic on the two highways apart could help.
Rhonda Brenzikofer said, “As a nurse at Marion’s hospital, I have treated the many injured or dead accident victims, one death is far too many.”
Brenzikofer said she also wants to see an overpass be constructed.
Tim Parmley of Florence said, “I am a councilman, volunteer fireman and former ambulance driver, and folks at KDOT, what are you thinking?”
Parmley said his son is a police officer in Florence, and they both wonder about the speeders “coming around the curve, and going over the little hill” at the intersection when it’s “too late to stop.
“We have lost enough lives for no reason. Let’s put a stop to this now,” he added.
In response to questions raised by the public about other Marion County intersections, Palic said no immediate plans are scheduled for changes at the junction of U.S. highways 77, 56 and 150, the junction of Pilsen Road and U.S. 56, or the area passing the Alco store on U.S. 56 at Hillsboro.