The stretch of U.S. Highway 97 where two crashes occurred Tuesday has long been considered perilous for its intersections and lack of median barriers.
But major safety upgrades to the highway between the two cities will likely not be seen until after 2019, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.
A recent study by ODOT outlined safety improvements that will require significant state funding.
Adding concrete barriers and six locations for J-turns — a configuration requiring a two-step process to turn onto the opposing side of the highway — is expected to cost $9 million. Other smaller-scale improvements include enhancing visibility for drivers passing through intersections.
Joel McCarroll, ODOT’s traffic manager for the region, said some of the more minor suggested improvements from the study may be accomplished with extra money from the region’s budgeted expenses.
Most of the major safety precautions, however, will have to be funded by the statewide transportation improvement program because of the high costs, he said.
On Tuesday morning, a 78-year-old Michigan man tried to cross the highway south of the Redmond Airport. The man tried to turn north from a private driveway on the southbound side, according to the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. He collided head-on with a Redmond man headed southbound, the sheriff’s office said. There were no life-threatening injuries reported from the crash.
Another head-on crash occurred Tuesday afternoon near SW Quarry Avenue south of Redmond. Oregon State Police said eight people were injured in the crash when a Redmond woman traveling southbound crossed into the northbound lanes. A 6-year-old girl was critically injured in the crash and taken by air ambulance to St. Charles Bend.
ODOT and a traffic engineering firm began analyzing the section of highway between the two cities in December. A final report with recommendations for safety improvements was released in June.
Although crashes occur there less often than some other highway sections in Central Oregon, the 9-mile section studied by ODOT had 108 reported crashes between 2009 and 2013. Crash data from 2014 are not yet available.
About 42 percent of the crashes during that period occurred on roads affected by snow, ice or slick from rain.
ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy said Wednesday that poor weather conditions remain the predominant contributor overall to crashes on Oregon’s highways.
“The primary cause of crashes on our highway is drivers not driving for the conditions they find themselves in,” Murphy said.
Another factor in the mix will be speed-limit increases starting March 1 next year. Drivers will be able to drive 65 mph on the highway outside of city limits instead of the current 55 mph.
Murphy said the department has already tried to make some safety changes to the highway corridor between Bend and Redmond. The department has acquired properties along the highway in some cases and eliminated access to them.
“We wanted to eliminate conflicts at those turn magnets that were causing people to take left turns across traffic lanes,” Murphy said.
Six crashes that resulted in fatalities or severe injuries between 2009 and 2013 were the result of head-on collisions or involved drivers trying to take turns that crossed the highway, according to the recent ODOT study.
The department hopes to install median barriers on the highway between the two cities in four separate phases.
The construction would include up to six J-turns. That configuration entails a U-turn lane in the middle of the highway. A driver wishing to turn left onto the highway would have to turn right first, then use the U-turn lane to head in the desired direction.
The setup requires drivers to only worry about traffic in two lanes at a time instead of four.
ODOT plans to use funding from the statewide transportation improvement program for the four project phases. Program funding, however, was allocated through 2018 before the final report was completed. The Oregon Transportation Commission is considering funding allocations this year for the 2018-2021 program..
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