`A petri dish for tragedy’ | AspenTimes.com

`A petri dish for tragedy’

John Colson

A two-car accident at Smith Way and Highway 82, shortly before 1 p.m. on Wednesday, has rekindled a debate over whether the intersection is dangerous and should be “re-engineered.”

The two drivers in the accident, Maureen Markov of Woody Creek and an unidentified man from Snowmass Village, were both taken to Aspen Valley Hospital.

Markov, 51, remained in the hospital Wednesday evening in fair condition, according to hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche. The 47-year-old man, whose name was not released by the Colorado State Patrol or the hospital, was treated and released, Dyche said.

According to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department, Markov’s Subaru Outback had come up the hill from Upper River Road to the stop sign at Highway 82, and was starting to cross the west-bound lanes when her car was broadsided by the second vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee. The Cherokee was heading downvalley.

Emergency crews had to cut away parts of Markov’s car to extricate her from the wreck, police said, but the other driver was out of his car and walking around when police arrived.

A dangerous intersection?

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said Wednesday that he is concerned that the Smith Way intersection with Highway 82 is unacceptably dangerous for motorists and needs to be “re-engineered.”

Recalling the years of construction work on the expansion of the highway, Braudis noted, “We were all told four lanes of separated traffic are safer than two lanes of unseparated traffic.”

But since the completion of the four-lane highway as far as Shale Bluffs, Braudis said, a seeming majority of the injury accidents at the upper end of Highway 82 happen at Smith Way. He recalled one accident two years ago when four tourists, essentially doing the same thing that Markov did this week, were killed when their car was broadsided.

“I believe there have been more deaths and carnage there than ever,” he said.

Braudis feels that cars are going far too fast on the highway at that point, and motorists entering the highway either from Smith Way or Juniper Hill Road “have a hard time telling how fast the cars are going” as they approach the intersection.

“All these things, I think, are a petri dish for tragedy,” he declared.

Braudis has discussed the problem with Colorado Department of Transportation projects manager Ralph Trapani and has suggested several possible changes. One was a flashing yellow beacon on Smith Way with a sign that reads, “Extremely Dangerous Intersection Ahead.” Another was a traffic signal.

But in the end, he said, “I’m not a traffic engineer. The pros need to look at this.”

Trapani agrees

Trapani, contacted at home on a day off this week, said he agrees that the Smith Way intersection has seen an inordinate number of accidents, but he is not sure what can be done about it.

“We certainly know there have been some problems at that site,” he conceded. But, he added, CDOT safety engineers have looked at the intersection and made some recommendations, though those recommendations do not involve the kind of changes that Braudis is hoping for.

Those changes, he said, have included moving the “stop bar” painted on the road surface to a point closer to the highway lanes, to provide better visibility for motorists turning onto the highway.

As for the other changes Braudis mentioned, Trapani said the yellow caution sign is “not a standard sign, unfortunately.”

But, he said, “I certainly am planning on [installing] a flashing beacon.”

As for a traffic signal, he said that may make matters worse on this stretch of highway.

“Stoplights increase accidents,” he said. “That’s well documented.”

Trapani stressed that he is “concerned” about the number of accidents at the intersection, but suggested the problem is more with the drivers than the road’s design.

“At some point driver behavior has to come into play here,” he said, noting that the excessive speeds and the distraction of drivers by electronic gadgets in their cars might be factors. “All I can do is encourage people to be careful.”

He said he will continue to study the accident reports and try to come up with improvements that might make the intersection safer.

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