At Augusta’s worst intersection, orange barrels, uneven pavement and construction signs stretch a half-mile. Large mounds of gravel and stacks of concrete cylinders line the roadway. And at times, traffic is reduced to one lane, and drivers must navigate around tankers and bulldozers.
Ongoing construction at Deans Bridge Road and Bobby Jones Expressway has caused so much confusion among local drivers in the past three years the interchange has become the area’s most dangerous, according to an analysis of nearly 40,000 wreck reports in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties by The Augusta Chronicle.
The review isolated crashes in and around intersections, including turning and acceleration lanes, and looked at reports from county sheriff offices, town police departments and the Georgia State Patrol. It found the Deans Bridge crossroad leads the region in traffic-related injuries, 106; is tied with Wrightsboro Road and Bobby Jones Expressway for fatalities, two; and ranks Top 5 in total crashes, 313, from 2011 to 2013.
Traffic safety officers with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office say inattentive drivers are partially to blame, but added the complex work zone at Deans Bridge Road has only raised the stakes for common mistakes made behind the wheel, such as following too closely or failing to properly yield to merging vehicles.
“We know it’s a problem at that specific intersection,” said Lt. Ramone Lamkin, the head of the sheriff’s office’s 43-deputy Traffic Safety Division. “We don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call to let local and state traffic engineers know to make the proper changes so we don’t have as many crashes.”
But records show the phone has not stopped ringing since late 2011, when the state Department of Transportation began a $32 million project to widen Bobby Jones Expressway to three lanes and remove the cloverleaf design from the Deans Bridge exit ramps. The improvements were to prevent traffic from “bottling up,” said district traffic commissioner Don Grantham.
Inclement weather, utility issues and other unforeseen conditions have caused at least three delays, and department spokesman Cissy McNure said last week the project is about 65 percent complete with yet another new completion date of Dec. 22.
Wreck reports show a 20-year-old driver died July 1, 2012, when he ran off Deans Bridge Road into the median “negotiating a curve.” Twelve days later, another fatality occurred when a pickup truck collided head-on with a tractor trailer.
The largest number of injuries reported in a single wreck was five in January 2013. The last injury reported was on Dec. 4, a rear-end collision that road-patrol deputies call the most common crash type.
McNure said it is not uncommon for road construction projects to finish behind schedule, but this could be an extreme case.
Kathy Zahul, Georgia’s state traffic engineer, said once a hazardous intersection is identified, it can take 12 to 18 months to implement safety upgrades if the project involves federal funding and the government already owns affected property. She said if utilities need to be cleared and additional funds and land are required, the project could take three years.
“Georgia is a toward-zero-deaths state,” Zahul said. “Our goal is to eliminate fatalities.”
Zahul said while her department realizes it cannot engineer its way out of every fatality, it has partnered with the governor’s office and is now implementing a $60 million highway safety improvement program through metropolitan planning organizations to address hazards that are “systemic or systematic in nature.”
She said most projects are designed to prevent vehicles from leaving their lanes, reduce severity of the consequences if they do, improve visibility, design, and operation of an intersection, or address pedestrian safety. Fixes include installing cable barriers, adding rumble strips, enhancing the recovery area, improving signage and striping on roads or intersections, or enhancing pedestrian accommodations.
Deans Bridge construction, which is not funded through the highway safety improvement program, includes many of those measures, that many believe would help reduce the number of wrecks at the interchange.
According to DOT statistics, intersection fatalities are typically around 25 percent of Georgia’s highway fatalities, lane-departure crashes account for more than 50 percent, and pedestrians around 10 percent.
At Deans Bridge Road and Bobby Jones, rear-end crashes account for 70 percent of all wrecks. For comparison, about 40 percent of all crashes reported in Richmond and Columbia counties from 2011 to 2013 were the result of a rear-end collision.
“The data doesn’t lie,” said Capt. Steve Morris, of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. “These crashes are easily preventable.”
Nearly half of Columbia County’s 10,954 wrecks were rear-end collisions. The likelihood of such a crash was 60 percent at the intersection of Washington and Columbia roads, where 350 wrecks were reported from 2011 to 2013, more than any crossroad in the county.
At the next-highest intersection for wrecks in Columbia County – Interstate 20 at Highway 383, or S. Belair Road – 53 percent of 324 crashes reported were the result of rear-ending.
Path to prevention
It’s unclear if any intersections in Augusta are being funded by the highway safety program, but Zahul said her department still does spot improvements.
She said recommendations for projects are typically made by the District Traffic Operations Offices after they complete engineering studies and cost analyses in response to concerns expressed by the traveling public or local officials, or above-average crash totals.
Lamkin said many drivers should brake completely and not roll forward into oncoming traffic at Deans Bridge and Bobby Jones. He acknowledged the shape and route of intersections do influence collisions, particularly when motorists merge.
Angle crashes – the most severe and potentially dangerous – accounted for 25 percent of all intersection crashes at Deans Bridge and Bobby Jones, a rate matched in both Richmond and Columbia counties.
“We can work with local and state engineers … to increase visibility at intersections where there are a high number of wrecks, but in some cases, there’s just nothing we can do,” Lamkin said. “It’s a matter of drivers not paying attention …”
“It only takes a second for a crash to happen,” he said.