When someone dies or is seriously injured in a crash, people naturally wonder what more could have been done to prevent it.
“That stretch of road is so dangerous,” people comment on Facebook.
“Why haven’t they put a stop sign there?” they ask their friends.
They share a common goal with government agencies: to reduce crashes. But there aren’t always simple answers.
“Every situation’s unique, so there’s no generic, ‘Here’s what we always do,’” said Tom Strandberg, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Region 5. “We want to be effective and not just have a knee-jerk reaction.”
Highway 395 in west Umatilla County is a good example. Two people have died there in the past two weeks.
Steven Gallegos, 30, was struck by a vehicle in the middle of the night on Oct. 26 while walking in Stanfield near the intersection of 395 and Edwards Road. And on Tuesday Dustin Scott, 48, was killed in a rollover crash on 395 just south of Hermiston after his truck struck another vehicle turning left into a business’ driveway.
As traffic counts and crashes grow on a stretch of road, ODOT works with nearby cities and counties to come up with solutions, add them to the area’s Transportation System Plan and place them in the pipeline to seek funding to complete the project once the data points hit certain benchmarks. Sometimes they adjust the speed limit, reshape an on-ramp, add a traffic signal, change lane configurations, put up new signs or add roundabouts.
“We’re open to ideas,” Strandberg said. “We talk to counties, talk to cities, receive letters from individuals, and we consider what they have to say.”
On the other hand, sometimes what citizens think will be the most safe doesn’t turn out to be that way. Strandberg said ODOT has added traffic signals to places that have not seen any decreases in crashes after the change.
The TSP for the section of highway where Scott died includes future traffic signals at East Airport Road, Ranch & Home and the Walmart Distribution Center. But the highway isn’t close to reaching traffic volumes yet that call for addition of the lights.
In 2016, ODOT proposed adding roundabouts to the TSP as a possible alternative to traffic signals in those locations. The agency dropped the idea, however, at the city’s request after citizens showed up to a city council meeting to vehemently oppose the idea.
While citizens who testified felt the heavy semitruck volume by the Walmart DC would be hindered by roundabouts, Strandberg said ODOT has plenty of data that shows roundabouts reduce crashes. A traffic signal might help direct traffic or slow it, but drivers are still vulnerable to being rear-ended or T-boned. Roundabouts, by comparison, make it difficult to create conditions that would lead to a fatal crash.
“Roundabouts save lives,” Strandberg said.
Another traffic solution ODOT has been implementing that usually draws resistance from citizens is “road diets,” which reduce the number of lanes on a highway as it comes through a town. ODOT put Highway 11 on a diet through Milton-Freewater and now plans to do the same in Stanfield.
While Stanfield’s road diet — bringing Highway 395 down from five lanes to three — likely won’t extend as far as Edwards Road where Gallegos died in October, it is expected to make life safer for pedestrians trying to cross the road downtown. Fewer lanes, combined with sidewalk bulb-outs, generally encourage drivers to stick to the speed limit, reduce the amount of distance pedestrians must cross and eliminate blind spots created as cars drive next to tall trucks.
While ODOT controls state highways, cities and counties must also make decisions about how to direct traffic on their own streets.
“We have a lot more control there,” Hermiston City Planner Clint Spencer said.
Spencer said Hermiston’s planned road projects can be found in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan. The plan includes projects, such as repaving North First Place and reconfiguring the confusing three-way intersection of Geer, Harper and Umatilla River roads.
Smaller projects, such as the addition of flashing lights near West Park Elementary School and Hermiston High School, aren’t included in the CIP or TSP but are added as the need arises. Spencer said new development, such as a subdivision, school or large retailer, can warrant new action.
“We determine how this development is changing demand,” he said. “With the new school bond, we will have to reevaluate certain areas.”
Local jurisdictions often use federal guidelines to make decisions about adding stop signs or other improvements, but they do have discretion to stray from those guidelines. Two years ago, Umatilla County added stop signs to Feedville Road where it intersects with Edwards Road between Hermiston and Stanfield.
The stop signs made the intersection exceed the recommendations in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for the number of trips through the intersection per day. But unusual conditions, such as the miles without a stop sign leading up to the intersection, led to fatal crashes in 2014 and 2016, along with frequent injury crashes caused by people running the stop signs already in place on the Edwards side.
People running stop signs points to an important point in the conversation about road safety:
“The biggest factor in safety is the person behind the wheel,” Strandberg said.