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A perilous intersection, but what’s the solution?

Above, the intersection of Wheatland and Brooklake roads, just more than a mile north of the Keizer city limits. It has claimed four lives since 2000, leading some to question what can be done to make it safer. (Photo Illustration by Andrew Jackson of the Keizertimes)

Of the Keizertimes

Four people have died in separate incidents at the intersection of Wheatland Road and Brooklake Road just north of Keizer since 2000, according to state records.

The deceptively quiet intersection, where Brooklake’s west end forms a T-junction with Wheatland Road, is on three sides a fairly typical quasi-rural intersection, with homes and a filbert orchard on the east side of Wheatland Road.
But where Brooklake Road ends – an unforgiving drop into a ravine on the west side of Wheatland Road. There’s no guardrail or other barriers there; only a yellow sign with arrows pointing left and right, indicating the road is ending. Miss that stop sign, and chances are the vehicle’s occupants are in trouble.

Causes vary – Some were speeding, alcohol was involved in others, and for some there’s not an easy explanation.

What they do have in common: All were single-vehicle accidents, all ended off-road and all involved striking a fixed object, such as a sign or a tree.

News reports from accidents in 2006, 2009 and the most recent incident showed vehicles traveling down the embankment on the west side of Wheatland Road.

It should be noted that statistics provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation went back to 1985, and showed no accidents from 1985-1998.

“There was one in 2000, then four years later, then five years later you’ve got one in 2009,” said Kelly Hawley, a crash analyst for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“This one has had problems over the years, but it’s been real sporadic,” said Cynthia Schmitt, a transportation engineer for Marion County.

The agency doesn’t yet have data for 2010 thus far, which included a fatal accident last week that killed 53-year-old Jeff Weathers of Gervais.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office believes Weathers was driving westbound on Brooklake when he missed a stop sign and traveled down the ravine, lodging his 1992 Toyota Tacoma in a tree. No skid marks were spotted on scene by authorities or by a Keizertimes reporter.

Police aren’t sure why Weathers apparently missed the stop sign – there were no signs of drugs or alcohol and he had lived in the area for years, according to Marion County Sheriff’s spokesman Don Thomson. An autopsy is forthcoming.

When the Keizertimes posted news of Weathers’ death on its website, several commenters spoke up about the intersection’s safety. Concerns are twofold: How to make drivers aware of the upcoming stop sign, and what can be done to keep drivers who do miss the sign from plunging into the ravine on the west side of Wheatland Road.

As one approaches the intersection from the east there’s a sign indicating a stop sign ahead, followed shortly by the intersection itself. On the west end of the intersection there’s the aforementioned yellow double-arrowed sign.

Schmitt said the county has already made changes that make the upcoming stop sign more apparent.

“We have an oversize stop sign … guide signing and warning arrows on the far side of the intersection,” Schmitt said, adding the county upgraded to a different type of sheet metal that reflects more light.

Rumble strips – commonly seen on the side of Interstate highways to give drifting drivers a jolt – could be used to make drivers more aware of an upcoming intersection. But Schmitt said those can create their own problems.

“Rumble strips are good if people aren’t noticing the signs for some reason,” Schmitt said. “They also have a problem where people swing around them.”

Also an issue with nearby homes is the noise when cars drive over them – they’re called “rumble” strips for a reason.

“We still may try those out there, but they generate a lot of complaints because they’re fairly noisy, and generate complaints about head-on collisions because people swing around them instead of going through them,” Schmitt said.

And guardrails, Schmitt said, are more designed for deflecting traffic at a parallel angle than absorbing a head-on collision.

“They can actually increase the severity of the crash … because in this case anyone who runs off the road is going to hit it at a right angle,” Schmitt said. “They can’t take that kind of a hit.”

Alternatives to guardrails can include water or sand-filled barrels designed to absorb the energy of a hard impact. But Schmitt said there isn’t enough room on the shoulder to install them.

“Those would be the types of devices you would need to go to,” Schmitt said. “The problem is there’s no room.”

The primary complaints Schmitt hears about that intersection have to do with light getting into drivers’ eyes in the late afternoon. Through a gap in the trees, one can see all the way to the hills of west Salem when approaching the intersection, causing significant sunlight as the sun sets in the west.

“There’s an opening in the trees there and there’s no background …  so there’s kind of a gap in the trees there,” Schmitt said. “We just don’t have any way to combat the sun issue.”

“What we have to do is get it so people don’t miss that stop sign, or whatever is causing them to go through the end there.”