On the road to recovery

Published 9:47 am Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Staff Writer

The asphalt river that carries motorists past tobacco, corn and cotton fields from Chocowinity to Aurora and back can seem peaceful at times. It is easy to be lulled into a state of tranquility driving past rolling fields of green winding one’s way through scenic southern Beaufort County.
For one stretch of N.C. Highway 33, that tranquility often turns into fatality in the blink of an eye as the 20-foot-wide highway leaves little margin for error. Drift too far to the right and one ends up in a ditch, too far to the left and one ends up in the morgue.
A five-year summary report of a 10-mile stretch of N.C. 33 from N.C. Highway 306 outside Aurora to State Road 1169 determined that there were 7.8 traffic fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles. By comparison, the statewide average is 2.14 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles.
In all, there were 80 accidents — not involving collisions with animals — during the 60-month review period, or one every three months. Five of those accidents resulted in seven fatalities, including three deaths in two separate accidents in April 2009. Twelve of the 80 accidents occurred at the intersection of N.C. 33 and N.C. 306.
“The statistics of it is eyebrow raising, to know the number of injuries and crashes on N.C. 33,” said 1st Sgt. Kenneth Pitts with the Highway Patrol. “It’s straight road out in the middle of nowhere, and maybe drivers become complacent. There is one particular curve down there, and they documented 12 crashes.”
State officials plan to tackle the problem head-on with a three-“E” approach: engineering, education and enforcement. The N.C. Department of Transportation started the process Tuesday by holding a road-safety audit with representatives from the Highway Patrol’s office in Washington.
“The road-safety audit process is a team process focused on identifying any opportunities that can be used for improvement,” said Brian Mayhew, a DOT traffic-safety systems engineer. “It doesn’t focus just on engineering. It looks at opportunities as far as enforcement and education as well.”
DOT engineers have been using road-safety reviews since 2002 to evaluate roads, traffic-control devices and the margin of error for drivers in locations where there are a higher-than-average number of severe crashes with injuries and fatalities. Their review of N.C. 33 should result in some recommendations for local engineers to consider.
“It does look like the predominant crash is the lane-departure crash where someone left their lane and crossed the center line or went off the road,” Mayhew said. “The primary focus of the team is to determine any improvements that can be done quickly. The goal is not to come up with a large capital-improvement project. The focus of the team is on low-cost changes that could return a good benefit by improving safety.”