The Superbus's Thoughtpad

The Killing Road

Posted by Chris Bowen on August 20, 2013

lepricrossIn my time as a writer and as a journalist and blogger, I have taken a lot of pictures of events, people, and things. My job has largely been video games, not war photography. But I can never remember a time when I was in as much danger as when I got the shot to the left of this paragraph.

To get this shot, I had to walk along what we locally call Pink House Cove. It’s a brutal stretch of road; a 40MPH, blind curve with two way traffic. On one side of the road, you have a guard rail protecting the Housatonic River. On the other side, you have a small mountain that turns certain curves into guessing games because you can’t see what’s coming from the other end. Both sides feature virtually no shoulder, so there’s nowhere to go if something goes wrong. I walked along the inside curve of the mountain to get to this site to be able to get this picture, not being able to see where the cars were and – worse – them not being able to see me. I stayed to the inside as far as I could, but it never felt like enough; one person coming too fast, or over-correcting to the inside, could make me the middle of a crunchy sandwich. I’m a brave man who has survived a war, but I am not without feeling, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a touch afraid for my life as I walked about 1/8th of a mile to this spot.

Despite all that, I managed to get across the street and into a good enough position, on the other side of the guard rail, to get the shot.

Why would I risk my life like this, on a notorious road at sundown? Easy: the shot is the memorial cross for Marie Lepri, who died on June 7th, 2010, killed by someone driving this very curve too aggressively. And it’s my vain hope that my own little bit of risk helps drive enough attention to this road to make sure that Marie, and the other people who have died on this road over the years, didn’t die in vain.

As Valley residents, we all go through a process whenever someone dies on Roosevelt Drive. This time around, it was after the death of Nicole McDonald, a 25 year old Seymour resident who left behind a husband and an eight year old child. She died on the one-year anniversary of the last fatality at the Cove. They post about the accident, and people go into the socially warranted “prayers for the family” period, followed by the “do something!” period. The “do something!” period is where a bunch of people get on Facebook and scream “do something!” to no one in particular, hoping that someone reading Facebook comments is omnipotent, and can manage a way to reduce accidents on the road while simultaneously getting all of the people together that would have to work together to perform any maintenance and assuaging angry motorists, many of whom are only commuting to and from Danbury and could care less about how many die on one stretch of road. Then, the “do something!” crowd is joined by the “do nothing!” crowd, who believe that the only problem is that drivers have to be more careful on the road, and if it weren’t for those idiots, there would be no fatalities. Ultimately, someone has a meeting with some toothless organization, they hem and haw, and when it comes to any responsibility, everyone points fingers. The City/Town responsible for that stretch of road point fingers at the state, the state runs it through their bureaucracy, and ultimately, nothing changes, and once the next accident hits, we go through the same process again.

What’s sad about all of this is that no one is really wrong. The prayer crowd are just coping with loss in the best way they know how. They don’t have the wherewithal to actually do something about someone’s death, so they help in ways that they think they can. The “do something!” crowd – and this is mostly the group I’m in – has an expectation: we elected people to solve problems like this, and now they need to solve them, or we’ll find someone else. Things are desperate because people are dying. The “do nothing!” crowd is technically right in that it’s bad driving that causes over 90% of these accidents; too much aggression here, not respecting a bad curve there. And even the local municipalities who are passing the buck are tasked to that by their taxpayers; if Anthony Staffieri were to have an act of charity and say “don’t worry, we got this”, he would be rightly held to task by his town’s taxpayers for not fighting for them.

However, when people are dying at an alarming rate, and crashing at an even more alarming rate, these are excuses. And the problem – as well as the underlying cause of the “do something!” crowd – is that excuses aren’t cutting it anymore.

I had just turned 12 when I saw my first fatality.

A motorcyclist was tailing the back-end of one of my neighbours – coincidentally, a family who once lived in the house I now live in – and ended up flipping over from the trunk, over the hood, and onto the street, right in front of where my street meets in. I watched the firefighters do their work, while waiting for the paramedics and the investigators to handle the completely immobile body of the rider that landed about 20 feet in front of the car.

As they moved the body, a sickening thing occurred: the head jerked to the side, a crack was heard, and blood started to pour out from under the rider’s helmet. That slight movement onto the gurney had finally decapitated the rider, and I – and the now-traumatized family who was at no fault in all of this – saw all of it.

Pink House Cove gets the most attention, but the whole stretch of the road that Valley residents worry about – essentially from the Dew Drop Inn in Derby to the Stevenson Dam in Monroe – is dangerous. This six mile stretch is notorious for crashes, but also for the way drivers handle it weather they crash or not. Once past the Cove and into Seymour, 34 essentially becomes a runway, a straight shot where I’ve been blown away by people crossing over double-yellow lines to pass me more often than not, an impressive feat considering I usually handle that part of the road at 50MPH; 10 over the speed limit. That can lead to some wonderful crashes at the intersection of 34 and 188 in Seymour – a road that former State Representative Len Greene has been on leaders to fix for quite some time – that would make fans at Talladega proud. Beyond that is more curvy road in Oxford, including a beautiful stretch of scenery and white-knuckle worry in some spots before hitting the Dam, which is a nightmare in and of itself.

Without having to dig too deeply for statistics, there are more crashes than I’d prefer to know about along those six miles. A light at the 188 intersection would help, for sure. But mostly, some common sense among drivers would also help.

I was on leave after my first deployment in 2000 and riding along westbound towards my house when my friend John, who was driving, interrupted whatever I was saying to say “holy shit” and pull over. I didn’t know what was up until I looked up and saw a scene: this pathetic schlep of a man trying to drag his unconscious girlfriend from their wrecked car to the other side of the road. It wasn’t a job that had to be done – she would have done just as well in the car, and in fact, he might have killed her if he had a neck injury – and making things worse was that, in between his sobs, he was doing so poor of a job that her pants had been dragged down around her knees as he dragged her along the pavement, exposing her genitals to the world, something that would have been embarrassing if it wasn’t so dangerous on a day that was well below freezing. After getting everything sorted out, we got the story: his girlfriend was driving, and she was taking medications, and because he was too stupid to stand firm and tell her no, she blacked out for a brief second behind the wheel. It was quick; she felt dizzy, then bang, into the guard rail. We could have yelled at her boyfriend more for his failings, but at this point, we both realized it was basically batting practice; there was nothing to be gained.

She smacked the left hand curve that leads into Pink House Cove. It took less than a second.

As noted before, I tend to fall into the “do something!” crowd, with a twist: whenever I join conversations on what to do about things dear to my heart, I try to at least provide some suggestions. While I’m not an engineer, nor particularly trained in road safety – I fix complex computer networks, not complex stretches of road – twenty-two years, including my military time, of living on this road have given me some ideas on what to do to try to prevent more accidents from occurring.

Before I do that, however, I have to knock out a few bits. First, while I sympathize with the “do nothing!” crowd, my sympathy ends at “if only drivers did the right thing!”. The fact is, these people want to do nothing only because it’s those drivers on their cell phones driving like maniacs that are causing accidents, and they should be the ones punished, instead of inconveniencing other people. For one, as the VIS noted, it’s not always about someone acting like an asshole; one person who crashed in the past few years simply fell asleep at the wheel for a split second, and that’s the kind of thing that occasionally happens when driving a motor vehicle. But noticing a trend in a lot of these accidents, including the most recent one, the people who end up the worst for wear are the ones who aren’t at fault. Marie Lepri’s killer was arrested. The truck driver who killed Nicole McDonald was in the wrong lane. What the “do nothing!” is saying, if their points are extrapolated, is that it’s tough that these people died, but the only solution we have is to hope that other people stop driving like maniacs. That’s not an acceptable answer.

Also, some ideas have been brought up that are simply either misguided, won’t work, or will cause more damage than they solve. A few that come to mind:

* Taking out the mountain on the north (right side heading west) part of the road – Forget the fact that people are actually considering taking dynamite to an entire section of the road. This would displace people on Cullens Hill Road, affect local wildlife, and ultimately will do nothing to combat distracted and fatigued drivers. This is a non-starter.

* More cops – Where? Where are cops going to go? The only place to put a police officer is in a little parking strip on the north end of the road – where I had to park to take the above picture – and in order to catch anyone speeding, they’ll have to pull out on a blind curve and pull someone over in an area with no shoulder.

* Reducing the speed limit – Good luck with that. It’s currently 40 MPH – something a modern car can handle in good weather, easily – and if I take that road at 40, I’ve got people crawling into my trunk like a kitten on an 8-ball. The crash that killed Marie Lepri was caused by someone overtaking over the double-yellow and hitting her head-on. Lowering the speed limit could make things worse because those that actually do the limit will cause issues behind them. Simply telling these troglodytes “that’s wrong!” does not matter; these people think they’re the only ones that exist in the world.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s go over a few things that should be done as soon as humanly possible:

* Centre-lane rumble strips – According to the VIS, this was rejected because the strips would cause too much noise and possibly disturb a few people across the river. Whoever shot this down for those reasons is a pedant and an imbecile, and should never be involved in planning anything, ever. Rumble strips would immediately solve the issue of distracted drivers, and at the very least, provide some incentive against crossing over the line. The results are there in other areas as well; they work. The fact that this isn’t happening is bureaucracy gone berserk.

* Speed-monitoring device between Buckingham Road and Pink House Cove, facing drivers heading east – We might not be able to put a cop in the area, but we can sure as hell put up some kind of police obstruction. These are the devices that show the speed you’re going, and flash if you’re going above a certain point. I say take it one step further: take snapshots of anyone going above a certain threshold (say, 45). Get enough screenshots that can be traced to your plate, get a written warning (not a ticket; good luck getting that to stand up in court). It’s immediately toothless, but a written warning shows up when a cop pulls you over later, and if done right, could warn the cop that always sits at Mattei’s Deli that a problem child is coming. If their speed is reduced, then the problem is resolved. If not, then they deserve the ticket that comes.

This was likely rejected due to funding reasons; Derby doesn’t want to pay maintenance costs. This is where citizens would have to say “suck it up”. I’m not proposing making Roosevelt Drive a speed trap. I’m proposing making it a speed gauntlet.

* Move the crossing section for the Lake View rec centre farther east – This hasn’t caused any real fatalities… yet. But the crossing section is usually visible only after going up a slightly raised hill, and that causes people to slow down too fast, could cause them to either plow into a car that’s stopped, or worst case, could cause them to hit a child that’s there to swim. I propose moving this back farther, parallel to where Ed McManus & Sons is now.

* Continue to enforce distracted driving laws – I can’t believe we have signs up telling everyone to buckle up and that cops are paying attention to such stupid nonsense; the only reason to have laws for seat belts, other than silly protectionism of victimless activities, is so firefighters have a smaller mess to clean up. Instead, nail people for distracted driving. If their head is down for any reason, they’re not looking at the road, so nail them, and fine them harshly. Even if a few cases don’t stand up on appeal, it’s still a lost day of work to fight it.

I’m tired of talking about this. I’m tired of writing, and bitching in useless Facebook comments with a bunch of people who seem to talk only because seeing their faces next to words amazes them. I’m tired of being a part of the “do something!” crowd. I’m tired of hearing about, seeing, and cleaning up dead people off of my road, a road that should be more famous for the scenery on the river than it is for the scenery on the walls.

At 24 years old, I was out of the Navy, and had started what would, due to a head injury suffered during hockey, be a short fire-fighting career. There was a crash on Roosevelt Drive, just before Argonne Terrace. I went to assist Great Hill, and knew what had happened. There was blood all over the road that we used sand to mop up, and one of the drivers would eventually die at the Hospital. As a firefighter, it was officially my first fatality.

The accident was in the exact same spot where the motorcyclist had died twelve years earlier. Talk about coming full circle.