The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 15, 2013

Dangerous U.S. 19 intersections — Glen Jean safety questioned again

By C.V. Moore
Register-Herald Reporter

GLEN JEAN — The intersection of U.S. 19 and Wood Mountain Road — known as the Glen Jean intersection — is notoriously dangerous among locals who use it often. So why hasn’t the state made a move to improve it?

The Register-Herald recently obtained 10 years of data from the Division of Highways (DOH) on crashes and fatalities for the Glen Jean, Greentown/Hilltop and Appalachian Drive exits on U.S. 19.

The numbers may be surprising. For example, no deaths have occurred at Glen Jean during that time.

“I am a little bit shocked by the results,” says Fayette County Office of Emergency Services Director Theresa White.

“But I know there are a lot of serious injuries (at Glen Jean) that are quite bad in nature. They end up flying HealthNet out of there quite a bit.”

White says that the problems at these intersections are sporadic and increase with heavier traffic flow. That could spell trouble during this summer’s National Scout Jamboree, which will bring a huge influx of visitors to the U.S. 19 corridor.

Another problem is the placement of the Glen Jean turnoff at the bottom of a hill. Heavy vehicles, especially, come down the hill at high speeds and meet with a curve, as drivers at the bottom are trying to pull into both north and southbound lanes.

“You’re going from zero gravity and trying to pull into oncoming traffic. It’s extremely hard to do that at that intersection,” says White.

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Tim Vickers, who lives in Fayetteville and works in Beckley, experienced Glen Jean’s perils first hand when he was hit by a car there 15 years ago.

Vickers was traveling northbound when a car tried to turn into Glen Jean from the southbound turn lane. The driver’s view was blocked by a car in the middle of the highway that was waiting for a hole in southbound traffic.

The turning driver crashed into Vickers, spun around and landed in the gas station parking lot. Fortunately there were no serious injuries.

He’s not sure what would have made the intersection safer that day.

“I’d hate to put a stoplight there, but I also hate seeing cars cut across traffic. It’s tough,” he says.

Other Fayette countians suggest an entrance/exit ramp, perhaps at a nearby intersection.

Vickers drives that stretch of U.S. 19 every day and says he knows the trouble spots. Even more than Glen Jean, he worries about the Greentown/Hilltop exit.

He says that people entering U.S. 19 from an on-ramp in Oak Hill often have to quickly shoot across the highway to get into the left turn lane for Greentown, creating a hazard.

When he has his daughter in the car, he gets in the left lane, hangs back, and lets the off ramp traffic do its thing at a safe distance.

Other locals avoid both intersections altogether during certain times of day.

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Anecdotally, locals insist that both intersections are dangerous. But what does the data say?

No deaths occurred at Glen Jean from 2002 to 2011, though 54 crashes were reported during that period.

A warning beacon installed in late 2000, and a reduction of the speed limit to 55 mph, may have played a role in reducing fatalities.

The Greentown/Hilltop exit, on the other hand, was the site of two fatalities and 35 crashes.

But a nearby intersection that no one talks about, which does have a stop light, recorded the most crashes of all — 68  and one death were reported at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Appalachian Drive.

This may be due in part to the increase in accidents — especially rear-end collisions — that often accompany the installation of a traffic signal.

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When evaluating whether an intersection needs a signal, the DOH uses a standard called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), published by the Federal Highway Administration.

“Abiding by the MUTCD ensures that traffic signals are installed where they are truly needed and allows state DOTs to prioritize projects so that transportation funds can be expended where they are most needed,” says Carrie Bly of the DOH.

It requires that an engineering study be done before officials consider options for improvement. Traffic signals are considered based on traffic volume, crash history, intersection geometry and other criteria.

The Glen Jean intersection was last studied by the DOH in 2001. Greentown/Hilltop was the subject of a 2005 study.

In both cases, the studies found that the intersection volumes did not meet the minimum criteria and that the crash rates weren’t elevated compared to similar intersections statewide, according to the DOH.

Crash rates are determined by evaluating the number of crashes compared to the volume of traffic entering the intersection.

The manual cautions that traffic signals are often considered a fix-all solution to problems at intersections, but that they come with disadvantages of their own.

At Glen Jean, for example, large trucks traveling at the reduced 55 mph speed might have trouble stopping in time to avoid collision.

Other potential disadvantages include an increase in rear-end crashes, an increase in delay for mainline traffic and increased fuel usage and vehicle emissions.  

“Therefore, the DOH typically employs traffic signals at locations where the side road volume is significant or where there is a pattern of angle crashes correctable by signalization,” said Bly.

Side roads carry visitors to the Glen Jean Armory on Wood Mountain Road, customers of an Exxon gas station and other nearby businesses, and local traffic.

Pretty soon, side roads will also carry employees, delivery traffic and maintenance workers who use the Summit Bechtel Reserve service entrance in Glen Jean.

Flashing beacons, speed reductions and revising the geometry of an intersection are several alternatives to installing a signal. The first two have already been done at Glen Jean, while the third option is in the works.

The DOH plans to construct a turn lane on W.Va. 16/61 at the Glen Jean intersection by May 1 of this year. It is one in a series of projects intended to mitigate the traffic flow imposed by the Boy Scouts of America’s new development in Fayette County.

Another such project, already complete, was an intersection improvement at Greentown/Hilltop, which involved the addition of a turn late on W.Va. 16 and the extension of a turn lane on U.S. 19.

The DOH says that a 2011 traffic impact study by Wilbur Smith Associates for the Summit Bechtel Reserve did not recommend the installation of traffic signals at either intersection, but both sites were identified as needing attention before the Jamboree could take place.

“The amount of traffic generated by the event itself, not to mention the day visitors, is going to be extreme,” said White. “It is going to tax every bit of our resources and the ability of the roadway to carry the traffic.

“I think during that time period people are going to have to use extreme amounts of caution to avoid the area at all costs.”

The high traffic flows from this summer’s event may end up proving the point of those who say the intersections are dangerous and need to be addressed in a more significant way.

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Glen Jean may be safer than most assume, but that could be because of the danger perceived there. Many drivers with local experience are on guard as they pass through.

“The reason why there may be less fatalities there is because it’s a well-known intersection for wrecks. It’s also an extremely quick response time (from emergency workers),” says White.

The Greentown exit, too, is located in sighting distance from a local ambulance operator’s station.

Ramps or signals may be many years away, if they come at all. In the mean time, drivers can take safety into their own hands and practice the following tips:

-- Slow down as you reach the curve at the bottom of the hill at Sun Mine.

-- Don’t idle in the center of the roadway waiting for traffic to clear. Instead, wait for a hole in both lanes of traffic if possible.

-- Make sure your line of sight is 100 percent clear before turning.

-- Drive defensively and always assume that the car sitting there ready to pull out will actually pull out.

-- Don’t follow cars too closely. Leave plenty of breaking distance between cars.

-- Automatically move over into the passing lane as cars merge onto the road.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com