Bend's worst intersections

City tries to find solutions for areas with the most costly crashes

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin

Published Jan 7, 2013 at 04:00AM

From her coffee stand at the southwest corner of Eighth Street and Northeast Greenwood Avenue, Brandy Anderson has a clear view of what may be Bend’s most dangerous intersection.

Though she’s not witnessed a crash in the year since she opened Anderson’s Kaffe and Blendz, Anderson said there’s plenty of questionable vehicle-related behavior. Drivers go faster than they ought to in all directions, slowing vehicles overshoot the crosswalk, and at least one truck managed to knock the “walk/don’t walk” sign off its post, Anderson said, all accompanied by “a lot of honking” nearly every day.

A review of all reported crashes at more than 70 intersections around the city between 2007 and 2010 put Eighth and Greenwood in the top spot on the “Relative Severity Index,” a computation intended to reflect the cost of vehicle accidents. The city’s transportation division released its study in November, and over the next few months, traffic engineers will dig into the numbers to figure out how to best spend the slightly less than $3 million that will be available for street improvements in the upcoming budget year.

Under the Relative Severity Index, a monetary value is assigned to every crash, reflecting the expected cost of paying medical bills and repairing property damage — for example, a vehicle striking a pedestrian or cyclist is valued at $158,900, while the value of a rear-end crash at an unsignaled intersection is set at $13,200.

Robin Lewis, a traffic engineer with the city, said using the Relative Severity Index to rank the dangerousness of intersections in a city the size of Bend is somewhat inexact.

“When we looked at each of those intersections that got screened, it was, I think, very difficult for us to say this intersection should be done before that intersection,” she said. “Just because the number of crashes we’re talking about at any intersection is not great, they’re in the teens — it’s not that we had one intersection that had 300 crashes.”

Instead of focusing purely on an intersection or its ranking, Lewis said the city has been looking at the crash data from the worst intersections in an effort to find out what makes them so bad. Often it’s the same kinds of crashes happening again and again, Lewis said, and by understanding how design choices contribute to these repeated incidents, traffic engineers can develop solutions that can be applied across the city.

Nick Arnis, the city’s transportation engineering manager, said his department draws from the same pool of funds to pay for safety improvements as it does for street capacity upgrades.

Because significant safety upgrades are expensive and do little for the majority of city residents — crash avoidance was a factor behind the three roundabouts built with bond funds last year, but the city spent more than $6 million on their construction — the process is a search for low-cost, high-return solutions that can be duplicated around the city.

“It’s all competing, and so we want to balance those out,” he said. “Do you do a little bit of everything, or put it all in to one project?”

A preliminary Capital Improvement Plan in the study examines 21 potential street improvements, their projected cost to the city and the savings to drivers created by preventing crashes through improved design.

At the intersection of Southeast Bear Creek and Pettigrew roads, northbound and westbound drivers running stop signs cause a sizable number of crashes. According to the city’s calculations, an investment of $6,820 to enhance the visibility of the stop signs could lead to a savings of $657,000.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the intersection of Northeast First Street and Greenwood Avenue was found to have a particular problem with “angle crashes” involving northbound and eastbound drivers. These crashes cost drivers an estimated $22,000, but the most cost-effective remedy — curb extensions on the south side of Greenwood — would cost $44,376. As a result, the city’s transportation division is not recommending further study of the intersection.

At intersections across the city, left-hand turns across oncoming traffic appear to be the most common cause of crashes, Lewis said. Among crashes involving bicyclists — one-third of the fatal crashes in Bend during the period examined by the study involved a cyclist or pedestrian — riding the wrong way was a common culprit, with 50 percent of daytime vehicle-versus-bicycle crashes involving a wrong-way rider.

While there’s not an inexpensive engineering solution for every identified problem, Lewis said there are a number of affordable fixes her department is examining.

Traffic signals can be reprogrammed to allow more time for pedestrians to pass or give drivers crossing on a yellow light more time to clear the intersection, or to eliminate the conflict between drivers making a left turn and oncoming traffic. Three-way “T-intersections” like the one at Southeast Pettigrew and Reed Market roads often see crashes that result from the driver on the stop sign side drifting into the intersection, Lewis said, some of which could be prevented through larger and more visible signage.

“Some of that stuff we’re looking at is what’s low-hanging fruit, what’s inexpensive and can be implemented systemwide,” she said.

The city’s crash study suggests that design alone is insufficient to reduce the frequency of crashes in Bend. Speeding or driving under the influence are factors in 42 percent of all crashes in Bend, but enforcement of DUII and speeding laws is today largely limited to “chance encounters,” in the words of the study, with police currently dedicating approximately 100 hours per week to traffic patrols.

Bend Police Lt. Chris Carney, onetime head of the traffic division and now the department’s spokesman, said he expects many of the city’s recent safety improvements will reduce crashes, particularly the recently completed roundabout at Southwest Brookswood Boulevard and Powers Road. Still, he’s concerned police don’t have enough officers on the road to effectively combat speeding, DUII and basic driver inattention.

Carney said the act of driving is so easy so much of the time that drivers allow their thoughts to wander while behind the wheel. Stopping or otherwise avoiding a crash takes longer than many drivers assume, he said, and when an emergency arises, many drivers just can’t react fast enough.

“As people, we are distracted. It doesn’t matter if it’s your cellphone or my job, sick kids or relatives, we’re thinking about things other than cars coming into intersections, pedestrians or bikes entering the road,” Carney said. “We’re thinking about things other than traffic.”

Carney said even distracted drivers seem to take notice of police traffic patrols. If patrols are performed with enough regularity, drivers will expect to see police in certain areas, Carney said, and their heightened awareness could lead to a decline in crashes.

Cutbacks in recent years have reduced the number of Bend officers on traffic duty to four from six, Carney said, stretching the department’s ability to maintain a visible presence on the roads.