About 800 vehicle accidents that occurred at the top 10 most dangerous intersections in the Phoenix area tell a story beyond driver error. Such crashes offer guidance to city traffic experts, helping them design and build safer streets.
The crash numbers come from an Arizona Republic analysis of 2010 police reports compiled by the Arizona Department of Transportation. The accidents on city streets include only those collisions that left someone injured or with at least $1,000 in damage to vehicles. All but one of the top 10 intersections fall in two cities: Glendale and Phoenix.
Traffic engineers say road infrastructure, surrounding land use, traffic volume and driver error play a big part in why those intersections top others across Maricopa County. History also plays a role. The Valley has seen a shift in road planning over several decades — moving away from wider arterial streets and embracing freeways. Still, the Phoenix metro area is left with arterial streets as wide as eight lanes that attract commuters and are ripe for accidents.
Glendale, Peoria and other cities in the Valley use crash data — from ADOT, the Maricopa Association of Governments and local police departments — to plan road improvements targeted at limiting collisions. Sometimes, it is costly upgrades, such as adding loading points for buses and additional lanes for vehicles, which experts say is sometimes necessary to create more capacity. Other times, it can be as inexpensive as changing the timing of a traffic light or putting up a warning sign. Police presence and campaigns to make drivers more aware of hazards are vital in reducing those numbers, engineers say.
Despite those efforts, there will always be crashes when thousands of drivers are making split-second decisions, Phoenix traffic engineer Kerry Wilcoxon said. “It always comes down to individual driver decisions and making good decisions — keeping an eye on the road, keeping attention focused,” he said.
Glendale’s 59th and Olive avenues has the unfortunate title of intersection with the most crashes, with 99 crashes in 2010 — an average of nearly two per week. The suggestion is that drivers zip from bustling Glendale Community College, apartment buildings and retail shops.
Glendale principal traffic engineer Chris Lemka said more than half of the crashes there are rear-end collisions, a sign the road may lack capacity to accommodate the traffic that floods the intersection during morning and evening rushes. The cash-strapped city is going after federal dollars for improvements, such as raised medians to limit access to driveways that are too close to the intersection and adding another lane to accommodate rush-hour traffic. The opening of Northern Parkway should draw some traffic off Olive, although the limited access parkway won’t be fully completed for years to come.
Lily Loaisiga, a 20-year-old student, said she has seen a crash just about every week in the years she has attended GCC. “It happens so often,” she said. “We’ve gotten used to it.” Student Anthony Sanchez, 51, said drivers seem preoccupied and in a rush most of the time. He felt the results two weeks ago as his car was rear-ended after class.
How volume factors in
There’s a direct correlation between crashes and traffic volume. Dunlap and 35th avenues in Phoenix, the second-highest crash spot in the Valley with 98 crashes in 2010, is one of the busiest intersections in Maricopa County, Wilcoxon said. Nearly 70,500 vehicles traveled through the area each weekday in 2010, according to MAG data, which ranks about 91percent higher than the other 366 intersections engineers monitored. The intersection is near high-density apartments, Cortez High School and a park. Metrocenter mall is about a mile away.
“You’ve got kind of a perfect storm of mixed uses,” Wilcoxon said.
Thunderbird Road and 59th Avenue in Glendale, another high-volume intersection, had the sixth-highest number of crashes in 2010. The intersection is Glendale’s top spot for rear-end collisions, Lemka said, likely because of congestion during peak travel hours. But volume alone does not dictate the number of accidents.
On the Glendale-Peoria border, Loop101 and Bell Road was the Valley’s busiest intersection in a 2010 MAG count with 94,268 vehicles traveling through each weekday, but it is 24th on the Valley-wide crash list. Jamsheed Mehta, who oversees transportation in Glendale, said the city has tweaked signal timing on Bell Road so more cars can get through the light cycle. The less a group of cars has to stop, the fewer rear-end accidents, he said. ADOT widened the on-ramps last summer to improve traffic flow.
Engineering is key to making roads safer, but enforcement and driver education can go a long way in altering behavior, said Sarath Joshua, ITS and safety program manager for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
Joshua said most accidents come down to driver error, whether speeding or failing to see the car in front making a turn. “That pretty much says the whole story,” he said.
Tempe’s top crash intersection, according to ADOT figures, is Southern Avenue and Rural Road with 73 accidents in 2010. Sgt. Steve Carbajal, who leads Tempe’s vehicle-crimes unit, said Tempe police typically pay more attention to top crash spots — including Southern Avenue and Rural Road. The department deploys more police and campaigns to raise driver awareness. “As everybody knows, when people see a police officer, more than likely they’re not going to commit traffic violations,” he said.
Wide roads a challenge
Indian School Road and 67th Avenue, fourth on the Valley-wide crash list, is “extremely wide,” said Tom Godbee, Phoenix’s deputy street-transportation director. Indian School Road is the widest arterial road in Phoenix, with eight lanes between Interstate17 and Seventh Avenue. At 67th Avenue, Indian School Road is seven lanes wide. The intersection had 80 crashes in 2010.
More lanes mean more opportunities for drivers to collide, Joshua said. Wide roads can encourage drivers to speed when there are fewer vehicles on the road. Godbee said the multi-laned arterial roads were planners’ efforts to accommodate growth decades ago when freeways were largely opposed. Additional lanes are added in some cases when a road lacks capacity to accommodate rush-hour traffic.
“To get around the Valley, you pretty much had to rely on the major street arterial network,” he said. “We’re always struggling with that — trying to do what we can to counter some of the philosophy from the 1970s and ’80s.” At the forefront of a years-long opposition were Eugene Pulliam, longtime owner and publisher of TheRepublic and the Phoenix Gazette, and his wife, Nina, who spoke out against freeway plans primarily through the papers’ editorial sections.
Voters backed the resistance, shooting down plans to develop Interstate10 in the metro area in 1970. A public shift came in the mid-1980s when voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund a 20-year freeway construction program. Joshua said that history plays a role in Arizona’s crash numbers as about 60 percent of Valley drivers use arterial streets rather than freeways, in part because freeways are a relatively recent development and don’t always get drivers close to their destinations. The Valley would see fewer crashes if drivers used more freeways, he said, because traveling on streets means more stops and starts, as well as left and right turns, spurring more chances for accidents to happen. Freeways are designed at higher standards than other roadways and provide fewer opportunities for drivers to interact, Joshua said.
Still, traffic engineers point to intersections where infrastructure changes have reduced crash numbers. Camelback Road and 19th Avenue was extensively modified in 2006 to accommodate the light rail. Construction discouraged some traffic, but much of the change came through reconstruction of business-access driveways and more stringent signal regulation, Wilcoxon said. “It’s still a very busy intersection. It’s got a lot going on obviously, but it hasn’t risen to the level it was at before,” in terms of accident numbers, he said.
In the three years before light-rail installation, the area averaged 66 crashes annually, Wilcoxon said. In 2010 and 2011, that number dipped to an average of 29 crashes annually. More recent improvements in Glendale should show up in crash numbers in coming years, Lemka said. The city used federal funds to put in medians at Northern Avenue and Camelback Road on 51st Avenue, where driveways too close to intersections were a factor in rear-end crashes. “When we go back and look at it, we fully expect the rear-end accidents to be down, the left-turn accidents at the driveways to be down — in fact, (they will) be non-existent,” Lemka said.
Interestingly, these cities and the State of Arizona RARELY if ever use their own funds for any street or highway improvements. They request federal funds. If received, then improvements may be made. If not, the improvements largely never occur. In other words, if they can't get the federal government to pay for it, it generally never gets done. As a Phoenix Car Accident Lawyer, I find this outrageous.
They can blame the federal government, and as suggested in this article, they can blame "driver inattention and error". Rarely do they accept responsibility for poor engineering, design, planning or maintenance. The governmental entities, by way of Arizona law, have a legal duty to provide safe roads. They are not obligated to "guaranty" safety, as that is not possible. However, they are required to continuously maintain observation and good engineering judgment for possible problems and necessary modifications. As we have witnessed too often, this duty is not always met.
By in-large, the governmental units do a good job of designing and maintaining the Arizona roads. However, even when there is a problem, they often cite "lack of funds" or "driver error". Like a little kid, they try to blame someone else.
Sometimes they get away with it, but sometimes they are held legally accountable. There is no better example at this point in time than the horrendous failures of the State of Arizona to maintain safety on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. But that is a lengthy topic, for another blog.