Lawrence Hintz remembers nothing from the spring evening in May 1998 when his Chevrolet Cavalier collided with a Mercury Cougar on rain-slickened Route WW, leaving him on life support for several days and with a permanent five-day memory gap.
Now fully recovered, Hintz says he knows at least one thing for sure: Route WW is dangerous.
“Sometime down the road, they’re going to have to change the pathway of that road to make it safer,” said Hintz, 47, of Columbia. “It can only be done by rerouting the road.”
Not the only one
Hintz’s concern is shared by a throng of residents who over the years have witnessed multiple lethal accidents along Route WW, a state highway that winds eastward from Columbia and crosses Grindstone Creek about a mile east of U.S. 63.
“We have a fair amount (of accidents),” said Cpl. Ron Kyle of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. “It’s a two-lane road, it’s curvy, it has no shoulders, and it’s heavily traveled.”
A wave of traffic accidents and the prospect of more than 1,200 new homes sprouting in the region have prompted plans for a comprehensive traffic study that will gauge the impact of residential growth on traffic along Route WW, said Skip Elkin, Northern Boone County district commissioner. “I know there’s been multiple accidents along the Route WW corridor,” Elkin said. “Many of them fatal.”
Too many too soon
Prime Development Corp. has already sought county permission for rezoning that would accommodate the development of nearly 300 homes immediately east of El Chaparral subdivision. And farther east, developer Billy Sapp is said to be contemplating a 650-acre development that could include as many as 920 homes.
That’s why Elkin has proposed the traffic study. He hopes it can start within 60 days and end next spring or summer. He also hopes the city of Columbia and the state will help pay for it.
But that might not be soon enough for Shirley Kowalewski, who has lived in El Chaparral since 1991.
“WW just has too much traffic on it,” Kowalewski said. “Right now, WW is the only access out, and (further development) would cause major problems with people getting in and out of the new subdivisions.”
Traffic on Route WW increased 16 percent between 1997 and 2000, according to the latest figures from the Missouri Department of Transportation. More than 4,200 cars use the state road every day, according to the department.
Kowalewski said she and her husband have witnessed numerous accidents, some of them fatal, on Route WW. She recommends the county widen Route WW to four lanes, take out the sharp curves and add traffic signals.
“I don’t think reducing the speed limit would work,” Kowalewski said. “People are going to drive 55 or 60 once they’re past the city limits anyway.”
A rocky history
Sue Gerard, 89, a local historian whose family has lived along Route WW since 1913, knows the highway’s long history of rough accidents. One of the most horrific, she recalled, occurred in 1928, when a school bus carrying 28 people plowed into Grindstone Creek, killing two people. The bus driver lost control after floodwaters washed out the bridge over the creek, Gerard said.
At the time, people brought bedsheets and blankets for injured and shaken passengers, Gerard said. Her father and a neighbor walked up and down the creek, collecting people’s hats, gloves, purses and wallets. It took two weeks to get all of the items back to their owners, she said.
Other examples abound.
Retired Hallsville Police Chief Robert Vemer, 66, died five years ago in his second accident on Route WW. The first accident occurred in May 1994, when a dump truck lost control, flipped several times and slammed into Vemer’s lawn tractor. Four years later, in June 1998, Vemer was killed when he drove off the right side of Route WW’s shoulder, swerved into the opposite lane and collided with another car.
In May 2002, 21-year-old Cassi Black of Columbia died after driving into the path of a Ford pickup at Route WW and Rangeline Road.
And on Oct. 30, 18-year-old Stephens College student Melissa Howland was killed instantly when her pickup crossed the centerline and collided with an oncoming truck.
Gerard said enough is enough.
“The bottom line is: if they’re going to attract a lot more people, the road will be clogged and delayed because of accidents,” she said during a recent driving tour of the road. “… There have been many, many bad accidents. (The 45-mph speed limit is) much too fast.”
Drivers once were allowed to drive faster on Route WW. In January 1976, the Columbia City Council voted to drop the speed limit from 55 to 45 mph on the section of the highway within the city. The road was considered dangerous because of the high number of accidents over the years.
Missouri State Trooper Bruce McLaughlin, who responded to the two-car crash that killed Howland last month, has seen several accidents since he started patrolling Boone County five years ago.
“The road is relatively narrow, and there are no shoulders on the majority of that road,” McLaughlin said. “That could contribute to problems.”
Looking for a solution
Melinda Hintz, who was driving her car ahead of her husband when he drove off Route WW in 1998, said more patrolling by the sheriff’s department or highway patrol might curb the number of accidents on Route WW.
Lowering the speed limit probably wouldn’t help at all, she said.
“It (WW) is very dangerous,” she said. “What gets me is you never see the police down there monitoring people’s speed. Police there every once in a while would definitely make people think about their speed.”