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Dinwiddie intersection has history of fatal crashes

DINWIDDIE - The community continues to mourn the loss of a young McKenney teenager who lost his life in a crash that sent four other people to the hospital with serious injuries, but as Dinwiddie comes to terms with the loss, some question whether the intersection where the crash occurred needs to be looked at for safety enhancements.

On January 22, a crash occurred at the intersection of New Cox Road (U.S. Route 460) and Courthouse Road involving two cars. That crash killed a passenger in one of the vehicles, Dakota Reid, and resulted in four other people being rushed to area hospitals for treatment, the second fatal crash at the intersection in three years, state data shows.

According to information provided by the Commonwealth's TREDS system, short for Traffic Records Electronic Data System, since 2014, there have been three fatalities at the intersection of New Cox Road and Courthouse Road, including the late January crash.

Prior to that crash, the most recent fatal crash at the intersection took place on February 2, 2017, just before 3:30 p.m, which saw one person perish and three others injured. The third fatal crash since 2014, the furthest back state traffic data went back, occurred on August 4, 2014, just before 7 p.m., killing one and leaving two others injured.

State data suggests, in all three fatal crashes, speed was considered to be a factor.

In total, since 2014, there have been nine accidents at the intersection. Of those, six had some form of injury reported, with three fatalities.

Following the latest deadly crash at the intersection of New Cox and Courthouse Roads, questions have been raised about ways to remedy the situation, like lowering the speed limit in the area or installing a traffic signal.

According to the Virginia Department of Transportation's records, the speed limit along Cox Road changes from a range of 50-60 miles per hour to 60-70 miles per hour just west of Claiborne Road in Sutherland. That speed is maintained for 21 miles to the Dinwiddie-Nottoway line.

VDOT data also shows this 21-mile stretch of U.S. Route 460 is the only non-interstate road in Dinwiddie County to carry this speed. Interstate 85 has speeds that range from 60 to 70 miles per hour.

The posted speed limit in the area of the intersection of New Cox and Courthouse Roads is 60 miles per hour. When it comes to adjusting, be it raising or lowering, a speed limit for a given stretch of road, VDOT engineers must execute various studies that look at a variety of factors, including traffic counts, traffic behavior, and historical crash data, among a host of others, but, in an FAQ section on their website, they admit lowering speed limits doesn't necessarily translate to drivers slowing down.

"Many people assume that reducing a speed limit will cause speeding motorists to slow down, but studies have shown that motorists tend to drive at the speed they perceive appropriate for the conditions of the roadway," the agency explained. "When determining speed limits, engineers attempt to set a realistic limit that the majority of drivers will obey and that can be reasonably enforced."

They continued, "A primary consideration is the speed characteristics, particularly the prevailing (free-flowing) speed, of vehicles on the roadway. Absent undue enforcement, posted speed limits that are set much lower than the prevailing speeds will not be obeyed by motorists."

According to state data as of December 2015, the section of New Cox Road that sees connects with Courthouse Road has an average daily traffic figure of approximately 7,000 vehicles per day. Drilling further into that ADT number, of those vehicles, the vast majority - 87 percent - are traditional, four-tire vehicles, like passenger vehicles.

After that, one-trailer trucks carry the next highest percentage of vehicle traffic at nine percent, with the remaining two percent being comprised of two- and three-axle vehicles and two-trailer trucks.

Extrapolating the data provided by the agency, it suggests that nearly 6,100 cars and 630 tractor-trailers move through the intersection on a given day, resulting in some asking if a traffic signal could be installed at the intersection, particularly since Courthouse Road is used as a cut through to get to the central portion of the county by some drivers, and vice versa.

Currently, there is a flashing signal at the intersection of New Cox and Courthouse Roads with stop signs on the Courthouse Road approaches but not a traditional traffic signal that manages traffic flow. VDOT representative Bob Spieldenner added that stop signs will also be added to the median to require drivers crossing New Cox Road to stop before proceeding.

The nearest traffic signal to the intersection would be just east of Sutherland along Cox and Olgers Roads, save the blinking signal at New Cox and Courthouse.

One of the main tools in the pockets of VDOT when it comes to addressing an intersection or other interchange is traffic lights and, in an FAQ section, they explain the goal of the agency is to "find a point where a signal will help more than it will hinder and where it will relieve more congestion than it will cause," with safety being the top priority of any signal decision.

According to the agency, there are two options for signals - fixed-time and traffic responsive. For fixed-time signals, a green light is assigned to different approaches to the intersection for a predetermined amount of time. They can be set to different times based on peak travel times, as well.

Traffic responsive signals change the lights according to the amount of traffic in each direction. These signals use sensors, like cameras or pavement loops, to detect the number of vehicles and automatically adjust the length of the green time to allow as many vehicles as possible through the intersection before responding to the presence of vehicles on another approach.

In any case, VDOT says they follow "federal guidelines that establish minimum conditions under which a signal installation should be considered," which include many of the things the transportation does review as part of their signal study process, like traffic data, vehicle speeds, interviews with local police and jurisdiction officials, to name a few.

"Traffic engineers assess whether or not a signal is a proper means of traffic control by carefully evaluating the number of vehicles and pedestrians that use the intersection, physical makeup of the intersection, roadside development, delays experienced by motorists during peak hours, average vehicle speed, and future road construction plans and the number and types of crashes that have occurred," officials explained while noting traffic lights are not a cure-all for crashes at an intersection.

"Are traffic signals a cure for crashes? Not in all crashes," they said. "Certain types of crashes can be reduced in number or severity by the installation of a signal, while other types might not be affected. VDOT engineers generally will recommend a traffic signal when crashes involving vehicles approaching from a different direction occur at an abnormally high frequency, but only if a signal will have a positive effect on safety, and other remedies to prevent these crashes prove unsatisfactory."

According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, a 2007 study that looked at fatal crashes at intersections found, of the 3,432 deaths in rural areas, 57 percent of those crashes occurred at approaches that featured regulatory signs, such as stop signs, while 27 percent of those deaths occurred at intersections either had no sort of traffic control installed or it was unknown.

Only 14 percent of the fatal crashes that year that occurred in a rural area were at intersections that had some form of a traffic signal installed. The study did not distinguish if the signals were traditional lights that fully managed traffic flow or flashing units.

"Although somewhat intuitive," the FHWA explained, "data shows that crash fatalities are disproportionate at signalized intersections in urban areas, and a large [percentage] of rural fatalities have regulatory signs as a factor in the crash."

In an interview regarding the roadway, Spieldenner said they are also looking to installing rumble strips along Courthouse and New Cox Roads to “make drivers pay attention to something, like an intersection, is coming up ahead.”

He added, following a traffic study in 2008, the currently installed flashing signals were installed at the intersection and a hill in the median was removed to help improve sight lines and improve safety at the intersection.

“Every time there is a serious or fatal crash, we work with law enforcement and officials to see if there are any improvements that might be needed,” Spieldenner said.

Speaking specifically about a full signalized intersection, Spieldenner explained, “When you are going for long distances and you suddenly come across a traffic light,” that can contribute to an increased risk of accidents at an intersection like New Cox and Courthouse Roads where the speed limit is 60 miles per hour.

“There are other options we have tried over the years,” he said, pointing to the flashing lights and sighting work and future plans to install a median stop sign and rumble strips in the roadway.

Officials from Dinwiddie are expected to meet with VDOT to discuss the intersection and other transportation issues during a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 3:30 p.m. at Eastside Enhancement Center along U.S. Route 1.