The hard road to safety

Grandfather seeks to improve the safety of Highway 63 after his grandson was killed in an accident on the road
Tuesday, September 9, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:17 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Thomas Hutchinson has been on a mission since his grandson Tommy Hutchinson and friend Brandon Wright-Hyler were killed June 11 when they pulled into the path of a tractor-trailer on U.S. Highway 63 at Ponderosa Street. The quest: pushing for ways to make the intersection safer.

“How many kids have to die there before they change it?” Hutchinson asked.

Even before his grandson’s funeral, Hutchinson began examining the intersection south of Columbia near KOMU/Channel 8 and Williams Pipe Line Co.

He measured the distance from the stop sign on Ponderosa to the middle of the road — 40½ feet — and said Missouri Department of Transportation officials told him it was set off to the side to give tractor-trailers room to maneuver.

He measured the height of the weeds along the side of the highway — 3½ feet, he said, until they were mowed.

Patrolman ponders safety ideas

Hutchinson and others, including Missouri State Highway Patrolman Gary Gundy and Boone County Sheriff Ted Boehm, have ideas about ways to make the crossing safer, including a stop sign with flashing red lights at the end of Ponderosa, flashing yellow lights or rumble strips on the highway and more expensive ideas such as an overpass.

The intersection handles traffic from the KOMU station, residential housing along Ponderosa and tanker trucks using the pipeline plant. Though the two teens were the first fatalities at that location since 1999, there have been at least 16 accidents there since 1999, according to Capt. Chris Ricks of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Boehm thinks intersection is dangerous

Boehm and a state trooper who has worked numerous accidents there think the intersection is dangerous and needs attention. District Engineer Roger Schwartze of the Highway Department, however, said the crossing is no more dangerous than other crossings along the four-lane highway.

“It honestly doesn’t have a higher accident rate than other intersections.” Schwartze said. “It’s not what I would call a high-accident location.”

Gundy, who worked the double fatality in June, is no stranger to the intersection.

“It’s so marked up with paint and skidmarks out there, it’s getting difficult to decipher what accident was where,” Gundy said.

His main concern is with the tanker trucks pulling out of the pipeline terminal and crossing or merging with traffic in a 70 mph zone.

“I think that intersection more than any other in the county bears serious risk of accident with hazardous material,” Gundy said. “If that happens, there could be a huge explosion.”

Gundy thinks the trucks need some type of overpass or acceleration ramp for southbound traffic. While acknowledging that those solutions would be expensive, he thinks it’s warranted, calling the intersection “a major incident waiting to occur.”

Boehm said the highway department needs to re-evaluate intersections like this one on a regular basis.

“The pipelines aren’t gonna move, and neither is the highway,” he said.

Flashing stop light could solve problem

Boehm offered two possible solutions.

“A flashing light on 63 would at least notify those people traveling that there’s the possibility of trucks crossing — it’s like a heads-up,” he said.

He also suggested putting in rumble strips like those on the edge of many highways to alert drivers.

Schwartze admits adding a flashing light is “not terribly expensive” but said they don’t seem to be of any real value.

“We tried flashing lights at the airport intersection, and speeds aren’t any different.” Schwartze said. “If drivers don’t drive appropriately, there’s always the potential for accidents. And we have those worries at all intersections.”

David Hutchinson, Tommy’s father, isn’t satisfied with the response from the transportation department. He thinks there’s more traffic than ever at the Ponderosa intersection since the Nifong Boulevard connection to Route AC and U.S. 63 was blocked off. Installing a new stop light with blinking lights on Ponderosa Drive at U.S. 63, David Hutchinson said, would be a major improvement for motorists driving at night, which is when the accident that killed the two teens occurred.

“That $1,200 sign would be a lot cheaper than cleaning up one accident,” Hutchinson said.

He said he’s even offered to pay for the sign: “To save somebody else’s life, you bet I’d do it.”

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