Look Both Ways Three Times
It seems that we can’t get through a week without hearing about another multi-vehicle accident in the area of Route 6 west of Wyalusing where the Grand Army of the Republic Highway is met by Route 409, which serves as the main artery from the highway to Camptown. And it’s up to you, the drivers, to concentrate on getting through the intersection safely because a PennDOT official concedes that the agency is reactive rather than proactive because of budget restraints and there are no plans at present to alter the traffic flow through that stretch any time soon.
“Due to the limited availability of funds, project locations must be addressed based on prioritization,” PennDOT District 3 assistant traffic engineer Bill Houpt offered. “Prioritization is based on the number and severity of crashes that have occurred within a five-year period. I have no records of a fatal crash at the intersection within the last five years.”
In essence, Houpt confirms what we often say with tongue in cheek: Nothing gets fixed until enough people get hurt. That’s not to say that nobody has acknowledged or addressed the dangers that lurk on the upper side of the old twin cuts.
“Several years ago, we recognized the need to have the intersection better marked at night,” Wyalusing Township supervisor Marvin Meteer related. Despite the fact that both roads at the intersection are state roads, Meteer continued, PennDOT does not provide anything in the way of lighting, so the township opted to install pole lights to make nighttime use of the interchange a little safer.
What neither the township nor the state can control or could have predicted several years ago, is the prominence of that particular intersection to the gas industry and related businesses. A pipe yard popped up there, and drivers of many tankers and other large vehicles use Route 409 as a conduit to Route 706 and Montrose via Camptown. Factor in the increased industrial traffic on Route 6 itself, and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
The intersection is well-marked and quite obvious when one is actually stopped at it. The problem seems to stem from the approaches and its unique relative elevation. I have heard many different versions of the “close calls” people have experienced at the intersection, each depending on which direction the person was headed and from where. The stories often include the phrase “and they came out of nowhere.”
In addition to the overall increase in traffic, I think that the primary element of concern is the fact that the passing lane on eastbound Route 6 also serves as a left turning lane to Route 409, which lends itself to a number of dangerous scenarios.
Those who have been following slow trucks all the way from Wysox and looking for a place to pass naturally accelerate up the hill when they see the opportunity. Only when you near the intersection from the west can you see that there may be a vehicle stopped in the passing lane, poised to turn, leaving you to decelerate quickly or swing back into the right lane if there is room for you.
The speed at which many drivers climb the hill to pass in the eastbound lane also makes it difficult for those turning east from Route 409 onto Route 6. The driver is forced to make a quick decision as to which of the two eastbound lanes he or she should aim for, based on a perception of how quickly traffic is coming up the hill and whether or not any of those vehicles are going to change lanes again.
I’m depicting these two consequences in perfect weather conditions in broad daylight. Add rain, darkness, or the morning fog that is so prevalent in the fall, and it’s apparent why many local drivers are declaring that intersection to be one of the most intimidating junctions in the Wyalusing area.
“Fog, especially in the spring and fall, has always been a problem for people entering or exiting the roadway there,” Meteer concurred. “In the past, we have been concerned about school buses that have to stop along the highway to pick up students in the mornings.” He added that the Wyalusing Area School District has long been aware of the potential dangers in that area and has addressed the situation with additional signage.
Unfortunately, our awareness of the risks posed by the increase in traffic at the intersection of Routes 6 and 409 has not reduced the number of crashes there, which is where the PennDOT response falls short again. Houpt indicated that 90 percent of accident reports associated with the junction “list driver error as the primary causation factor.” OK, so if I hit you because I didn’t see you, that’s “driver error.” That says nothing of why I couldn’t see you. With that in mind, Houpt suggests that “many of the low-cost safety improvements aimed at aiding motorists generally will have little effect on overall crashes.”
That’s quite an assumption. Aren’t some of those “low-cost” solutions worth a try, or do we literally need a tally of fatalities to improve a situation that is obviously perilous?
From my experiences so far in reporting on government agencies and municipalities, I have learned that “the squeaky wheel gets oiled first.” PennDOT will respond to high volumes of calls on any particular topic, and townships can request traffic studies that sometimes result in a change of opinion and approach to an unsafe roadway. It may take months to get a response, a few more months to conduct a study and assess the results, and a few more months to affect real change. But it’s worth every life that could be saved there, and it’s time to get the ball rolling.