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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2003

Danger alone doesn't justify traffic signals

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

To Randy Hardy, there's no question an intersection at the corner of State Rt. 64 and Finzel Road is dangerous.

Now, he hopes the Ohio Department of Transportation agrees with him.

For years, community leaders have pushed ODOT to make safety improvements because of accidents and close calls.

In 1999, ODOT said conditions at the intersection didn't justify a traffic light - or even all-direction stop signs.

But a May 19 traffic accident that injured five Anthony Wayne High School students on their way home from school has the state taking a second look. The high school is on Finzel, about one mile north of Route 64.

Officials say the new traffic study should be finished by early August.

Mr. Hardy, superintendent of the Anthony Wayne Local Schools, said ODOT should consider high school traffic in the study, because of what he calls the “fearless factor.”

“We are dealing with a high volume of 16 to 18-year-old students using this intersection, who at that age are, many times, fearless,” Mr. Hardy wrote in a letter to ODOT officials in Bowling Green this month.

There shouldn't have to be accidents and deaths to justify safety improvements, “especially when schoolchildren are involved,'' he said in an interview.

But ODOT has to follow strict guidelines before approving a traffic light, said Mike Ligibel, the planning and programs administrator at ODOT's district office in Bowling Green.

The Ohio Manual of Uniform Traffic Devices outlines 11 criteria known as warrants that are considered in traffic signal studies. With few exceptions, a traffic engineer has to stick to those guidelines.

“You're not allowed to put a signal in if it doesn't meet at least one warrant. And just because it meets a warrant, you don't necessarily run out and throw up a signal. Signals cause problems too,'' Mr. Ligibel said.

The traffic manual's list includes just one school-related warrant, one that assesses whether a traffic light is needed to help children at a pedestrian crossing safely walk across a street.

“We don't make any distinctions based on driver age or experience at a particular location,” said Mike Stormer, ODOT's district planning engineer.

Laura Henry, whose daughter, Michelle, was one of the more seriously hurt in the May 19 crash, said she has no doubts that the Finzel-Route 64 intersection is a hazard. She had driven Michelle to school for several months this spring and avoided taking Finzel back to Route 64 because of the dangerous left turn onto the highway.

“It's a mess in the morning, and it's bad in the afternoon too,” Mrs. Henry said. “Look at how many kids were hurt. That accident scene was the worst thing I've ever experienced. They need to do something.”

But one accident on its own, no matter how serious, isn't enough to justify a signal - at least, not by the book. The traffic manual's “accident experience” warrant requires that an intersection has had at least five reported accidents that might have been prevented by a traffic signal “within a recent 12-month period.”

Other warrants cover such elements as overall traffic volume, side-road delay, peak volume and delay, and benefit to traffic flow or signal progression.

On accidents alone, the Providence Township intersection of U.S. 24 and State Rt. 578 would not have qualified for a signal even though 11 crashes occurred there between 1999 and 2001. A fatal collision occurred in 1996.

But a recent study found that the junction north of the Grand Rapids Bridge met four of the other signal warrants, including overall traffic volume. ODOT decided last month that it will install a signal there, although it has not yet been funded or scheduled.

ODOT is responsible for signal decisions on state highways outside municipal limits and must approve signal proposals on state routes within villages. Cities may install signals, but installations that don't conform to the traffic manual are ineligible for state funding and could be challenged in court.

During the last five years, the transportation department has installed 10 new signals in the district that includes Lucas, Wood, Fulton, Henry, Sandusky, Seneca, Ottawa, and Williams counties. Four more were paid for by developers at new intersections, based on traffic projections.

Ten more have been approved, with four scheduled for installation this year, four next, and the other two unscheduled. At the same time, ODOT has declined to install signals at seven other locations in the region.

One of the denials involved U.S. 20 at Sandusky County Road 175, where Thomas Holt, 17, of Fremont, died when he pulled his car out from the side road's stop sign and was struck by a tractor-trailer rig on Nov. 14, 2001.

“There have been some high-profile accidents out there because of the speed,” Mr. Stormer said. But even though roads with prevailing speeds of 40 mph or higher have lower signal-warrant standards, County Road 175 didn't qualify.

Another one ODOT turned down was at State Rt. 51 and Millbury Road in Lake Township, even though a light at that corner has the backing of State Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green).

“There's been a real concern for a number of years over that intersection,” Mr. Latta said. “The angle of the Millbury intersection is difficult.”

Mr. Latta said he understands why signal-siting rules are needed. Otherwise, “there'd be a traffic light at every corner, and that wouldn't be reasonable.” But he suggested that an “extenuating circumstances” provision be added to the process.

Most of ODOT's signal studies are request-driven, although the department sometimes will do one when major construction is planned. Generally, the department won't study the same intersection more than once every two years.

“It happens in bunches, usually after some event [accident],” Mr. Stormer said. “Sometimes we get multiple requests for the same intersection.”

When ODOT studied the State Rt. 64-Finzel intersection at local officials' request in 1999, it found that neither traffic volumes, side-road delay times, nor accident history justified any traffic controls beyond the existing stop sign on Finzel.

Mr. Hardy said he believes nearby development may have pushed traffic counts at the intersection above the thresholds for a stoplight.

But he worried that traffic counts for the current ODOT study may have been taken on a day when Anthony Wayne's senior class was not in session.

And if ODOT once again determines that no changes are warranted at Finzel, “that doesn't mean we give up,” he said.



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