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Crossing paths with danger

By Ed Brock

Mona Parker needs only to turn her head the wrong way to be reminded of two separate car wrecks she had at the same intersection. On both occasions she was driving to her Morrow home when she entered the exit ramp from I-75's southbound lanes to Mt. Zion Boulevard.

The first wreck was almost nine years ago when a man in a hurry to pick up his children from kindergarten came up the ramp and slammed into the back of her car. The accident and what happened afterward is a blur.

She underwent about six weeks of physical therapy but still has flashes of pain.

Then she got hit again on Jan. 13 as she was once again stopped at the top of the ramp. Parker, 58, said her latest injuries include pain in her right wrist, elbow and shoulder and the ankle of her right foot from pressure she put on the brake pedal.

After that accident she got out and asked the other driver what she thought she was doing. She told me, "Well, I thought you were going," Parker said.

Most Dangerous

Intersections

From July 2002 to June 2003 there were 132 accidents on the same ramp, making that intersection one of the worst in terms of number of accidents, according to Clayton County Traffic Engineering.

In the same time period, 43,895 cars each day passed through the intersection that is set amid the county's largest retail area. Shoppers from Southlake Mall and the strip of stores along Mt. Zion Road squeeze through that crowded intersection and the exit for Ga. Highway 54 directly to the north. Driver reaction in the intersection varies, some drivers starting and stopping nervously, others barely touching the brakes as they whip up the ramp.

The ramp is littered with cigarette butts tossed from impatiently waiting drivers and in a ditch below several hubcaps lay amid the other rubbish. The ramp allows only right turns, so many drivers try to race into Mt. Zion Boulevard's left lane so they can catch the next light where they can turn around.

The second highest number of accidents occurred at the intersection of Tara Boulevard and Ga. Highway 138 where 126 accidents occurred between July 2002 and June 2003. In the same time frame, the combination intersection where Tara Boulevard, Upper Riverdale Road and Old Dixie Road come together near the I-75 interchange had the highest number of accidents total, nearly 200. That doesn't necessarily mean those intersections are the most dangerous, Clayton County Traffic Engineer Jeff Metarko said, because the high traffic volume inflates the numbers. But there are other factors to consider. For example, the I-75/Mt. Zion Boulevard intersection and intersections along Tara Boulevard are more complex intersections and have more happening, he said.

Metarko is reluctant to call any intersection dangerous, but said planners must consider all the different factors such as the types of accidents occurring there, traffic volume and driver error.

It was perhaps a little of all three factors that led to the accidents Jacqueline Fletcher of Jonesboro had recently at two different intersections on Tara Boulevard.

At the intersection of Tara Boulevard and Highway 138, Fletcher was stopped at a traffic light on Jan. 12 when somebody hit a car behind her, sending it into her bumper.

"It was a hard hit. I had to be taken to the emergency room. I guess because of the sudden impact the back of my heart hurt," Fletcher said. "I was just sitting there not expecting anything." Then a day later she collided with another car as she was making a left turn onto Mt. Zion Road from Tara Boulevard. Fletcher and the driver of the other car both claimed to have the light and, because there were no witnesses, no charges were issued.

"Since I had just been in an accident, I didn't want all the drama," Fletcher said. "But I was still on edge. There's no way I would have turned without the light."

That intersection is number five in the top 10 with 97 accidents between July 2002 and June 2003.

It doesn't take an accident to make intersections like Tara Boulevard at Upper Riverdale a cause for concern.

So far, Carmen Reed, who lives in Fayetteville and commutes to Forest Park, has been able to negotiate that intersection without an accident, but she's had some close calls. One time someone almost sideswiped her.

Reed, 38, said the Atlanta area is far different from her former home of California. There, traffic can be bumper-to-bumper and yet she thinks there are fewer accidents because drivers use their turn signals.

"I have never seen so many inconsiderate drivers," Reed said. "I think it comes down to driver courtesy."

Other problems seem to be caused by people who ignore or don't seem to understand the design of the intersection, she said. There are three lanes traveling through the intersection from Upper Riverdale onto Old Dixie. The far left lane is supposed to be the turn lane for the I-75 northbound ramp. Reed says many drivers in the middle lane also improperly turn onto the ramp from that lane.

"I see so many people go through there when the signal arrow is red," she said.

The intersection is a maze of lanes that eventually bind the four different thoroughfares. Along the sides of the roads are thickets of restrictive and directional signs.

The office of Auto Smith used car lot is just a few hundred yards from the intersection. LaSalle White and other sales people see accidents there on an almost daily basis.

For White and the Auto Smith staff it has become routine to check on the drivers and to call police. White has worked at the lot for a year and a half and, while he's never seen anyone killed there, he recently saw his worst accident at the intersection. It involved a woman in a car who was hit by a tractor-trailer that was making an illegal left turn.

"They had to bring in the jaws-of-life and cut (the woman) out," he said.

Driving to work each day is also a bit challenging.

"When the light turns green you have to pause a second because you have that late driver," White said.

Using caution when the light changes is good advice for all drivers, said Clayton County Police Accident Investigator Joe Mack Eckler.

An investigator with the department since 1988, Eckler has studied the causes of accidents throughout the county.

Traffic volume is one cause of accidents especially at the Tara Boulevard and Highway 138 intersection where 84,827 vehicles passed through each day during the July 2002-June 2003 time period.

"There's just so much congestion at that intersection," Eckler said.

Most of the accidents result from people running red lights, but as in the case of Fletcher's second wreck, there are often no witnesses to verify who is responsible.

"It's each persons word against the other so it's hard to write a citation,"" Eckler explained.

Along with bad driving habits, the intersections designs could be improved, according to some drivers and traffic planners.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

The design of the I-75 ramp on which Parker had her accidents, along with driver irresponsibility, factor directly into the high number of accidents there, Eckler said.

"Because of the extreme curve of the ramp too many drivers have to turn their heads too far to the left and are too busy checking for oncoming traffic to pay attention to the car ahead of them. People are looking left and driving right and that is the overwhelming cause of accidents at that ramp," according to Eckler.

"You should not drive in a direction when you aren't looking that way," Eckler said.

Paying attention and keeping a proper distance from the car in front of you would cut down a lot of accidents throughout the County, Eckler explained.

He said drivers should use the two-second rule to determine if they are following too closely. After the lead car passes a fixed object, two seconds should elapse before the next car passes the object.

In rainy conditions the two seconds should be doubled, Eckler said.

Parker thinks some kind of traffic signal system should be used to stop cars on the ramp until the car at the top has moved on into traffic Metarko said a system like that shouldn't be necessary.

"If you just pay attention there's guidance there already," he said.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has recently redesigned the intersection in an attempt to ease congestion on the ramp, but Metarko said his department is still working on it.

"We're looking at that intersection to see what direction the accidents are coming from," Metarko said, adding that his department is also gathering data on the kind of accidents that are occurring, if they are on the ramp or off and more. "Then we can start providing more guidance to motorists or engineer the intersection some more."

Major re-engineering might also be on the way for Tara Boulevard's two worst intersections. The county has approached GDOT with plans to eventually build a tunnel at that intersection and an overpass bridge at the Tara Boulevard and Highway 138 intersection. GDOT's Office of Planning and the Office of Traffic Operations are reviewing those plans, GDOT spokesman Bert Brantley said.

SMALL INTERSECTIONS, BIG PROBLEMS

Also in the top 10 for number of accidents from July 2002 to June 2003 is the intersection of Ga. Highway 85 and Highway 138 where 97 accidents occurred. And there is another problem associated with that intersection. Too many people drive on the right shoulder of Highway 85 for yards before it actually opens up from two lanes to three. Riverdale police often station a car there to discourage the practice, Reed said.

"Inevitably there will be two or three cars parked behind the officer because they got stuck because they didn't know he was there," Reed said. "I've seen the policeman get out of his car and make gestures at them like you know you're not suppose to do that."

Other intersections in the top 10 for the same time period are Tara Boulevard and McDonough Road in Lovejoy n 98 accidents; Ga. Highway 331 and Old Dixie in Forest Park n 88 accidents; Tara Boulevard and Fayetteville Road in Jonesboro n 71 accidents, and Ga. Highway 54 and Forest Parkway in Forest Park n 69 accidents.

It's not always the number of accidents that makes an intersection difficult or dangerous. In downtown Jonesboro the intersection of College Street, McDonough Street and Lake Jodeco Road gives Jane Gissendaner fits.

"There is a three-way stop with cars turning left off Lake Jodeco onto College while crossing the railroad tracks (that bisect the intersection)," Gissendaner said. "At high traffic times, cars are often backed up on the tracks and block the vision of those waiting on McDonough Street." Highway 138 between its intersection with Walt Stephens Road and Mt. Zion Boulevard/Speer Road near Stockbridge has Wayne Weaver of Jonesboro concerned.

"It has always seemed strange to me that Highway 138 is at least a four-lane highway from Union City all the way through Stockbridge except for that three- or four-mile stretch," Weaver said. "To make matters worse, most drivers seem to think that this stretch is some kind of raceway."

A GROWING PROBLEM

As Clayton County's driving population continues to grow, the number of accidents will probably continue to rise, Eckler said.

But it is necessary to look at the percentage of accidents in relation to the traffic volume to determine how safe the roads really are, he said. Eckler thinks that percentage hasn't necessarily changed, and it could be lowered if more drivers simply paid more attention to their driving instead of eating, changing CDs or doing other distracting tasks.

For the future, however, Eckler said he will likely have many more opportunities to do his job, including the part of that job he finds the most challenging.

"Always the saddest time is when children are killed," Eckler said. "You never get used to notifying next of kin that they've lost a loved one, but it's especially hard to let a parent know that they've lost their child."