Originally created 01/02/01

Collisions prompt traffic light lobby



Columbia County Board of Education trustee Roxanne Whitaker has a new cause.

She's on a mission to have a traffic light installed at the intersection of Appling-Harlem and Wrightsboro roads, the area known as Pumpkin Center. The intersection was the site of a three-car collision Dec. 12 that fatally injured Melissa Dawn Swett, 16, a junior at Harlem High School.

At a pre-legislative session meeting with state lawmakers Dec. 21, Ms. Whitaker appealed for their help to have the signal installed. She said she has also written a letter to Gov. Roy Barnes.

"Last Friday, we almost had a bus wreck there because you can't see at that intersection," Ms. Whitaker said. "Two hundred to 300 cars come in and out of that convenience store in a 30-minute period every afternoon."

Ms. Whitaker said she is concerned about the safety of the children traveling to school. Melissa lived less than a mile from school, so she wasn't eligible to ride the bus. When she pulled out onto Georgia Highway 47 - Appling-Harlem Road - her car was struck by a Harlem High School teacher who was on her way to work.

"I don't understand the difficulty with putting a red light at that intersection," Ms. Whitaker said. "How many more will have to die to get their attention?"

There were four accidents at the intersection in 1998 and six accidents in 1999, according to state Department of Transportation traffic records. Melissa's death is the second fatality at the intersection in the past five years. Former state Rep. Roscoe Coleman was killed there in October 1998.

The county also sent a letter requesting that the DOT review the intersection for the installation of a traffic signal.

"Since both of those roads are state routes, the county really doesn't have much say over the installation of a traffic signal there," Columbia County Engineer Jim Leiper said. "But what we have done is request that the DOT perform a study based on the accident history at that intersection. I believe that one of the criteria for a signal is the number of fatalities."

Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said the DOT conducted a traffic study of the intersection two years ago, after Mr. Coleman's death and, as a result, installed "rumble strips" on Wrightsboro Road and a flashing light on Highway 47 to alert drivers about the intersection. But a 2-year-old study in a rapidly growing county may be out of date, he said.

"Historically, this has been a dangerous area. Because we continue to investigate fatal accidents at this intersection, one would think the next logical step would be to install traffic signals," Capt. Morris said. "That's not to say that a traffic signal will prevent all future accidents, but it should help ... Our hope is that they will seriously consider a traffic control device."

But for state transportation officials to consider a traffic light at the intersection, they'll have to complete a series of studies and apply specific criteria for traffic counts and other issues. And so far, it doesn't look favorable.

Preliminary traffic counts show there just aren't enough cars going through the intersection to install a signal, said Roger Price, the district traffic engineer in the DOT office in Tennille.

"Generally, the criteria set out for recommending traffic signals are predominantly traffic volumes, and the recommendations are supported by a traffic engineering study, which includes not only traffic volumes but also accident histories, topographic information and a lot of general information about the intersection and what goes on around it," Mr. Price said. "The traffic volume numbers that I've seen so far don't seem to support a recommendation for a signal. But that's just the numbers. There are other considerations. I certainly wouldn't want to speculate until we finalize our findings."

But the local pleas for help have gotten the attention of state legislators who have vowed to fight for a signal at the junction.

"In the past, they've told us that the traffic count wasn't high enough," state Rep. Ben Harbin said. "But it's not about traffic counts; it's about the severity of the accidents we're having there. There needs to be something there to slow that traffic down, and a stop-and-go light is all that's going to do that. We're not going to give up on this. We've had to get into debates with DOT in the past. We've lost a few and we've won a few. I hope this one we'll win. This really is not about politics; it's about human life."

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.