Last night I was hit by a car in a terrible, dangerous intersection

Last night I was heading down to Springville for an art show opening when a 25-year-old woman ran her car into mine. The accident happened near my apartment, in the middle of the intersection at 400 South and 400 West:

Screen shot 2013-11-20 at 10.33.43 PM

I was heading south when the accident happened, more or less in the position of the gray car just entering in the intersection in the top left of the picture (though I was one lane over). The woman who hit me was turning left to head west, following the path of the semi truck in the picture above. I entered the intersection when the light turned green, but she didn’t wait for me to pass, so she hit me.

It was an unfortunate accident and was probably mostly due to her not paying attention. I heard her say to the cop that I “just came out of nowhere,” which of course I didn’t. And if that’s all that had happened I wouldn’t be blogging about it.

Instead, however, the cop told me that “this happens all the time at this intersection.” After making that point several times, he even told me that he once wrecked his car in this very spot doing the exact same thing as the woman who hit me. The cop told me that the accidents here are generally the same in nature and my own observation bears that out; I’ve seen numerous accidents in this intersection as I’ve walked around the neighborhood.

Which leads me to believe that there is a design problem here; if accidents are happening over and over again, and left turn drivers are repeatedly not seeing through traffic, that’s a big problem. People get hurt, cops waste their time, public and private money is needlessly used up, traffic slows, etc.

The intersection of 400 South and 400 West, just after a woman rammed my car. The blue tint is the result of a police light.

The intersection of 400 South and 400 West, just after a woman rammed my car. The blue tint is the result of a police light.

I can only speculate on what the problems may be because I have no data. But this intersection is different from many others. For starters, this is an intersection of two massive stroads — or over-wide streets that function almost as semi-highways. That results in higher speeds and more cars than should ever be found in the middle of a city.

The bloated streets mean wider spaces to watch. After my accident, I couldn’t help wondering if the woman who hit me just wasn’t scanning far enough to the left and right. In most places, the north-south traffic would have been confined to a much narrower space; perhaps she looked for cars in that space, but out of habit didn’t look farther, as is required by a street that is so wide.

That’s her fault, of course — driving means learning to quickly adapt to new environments — but it’s also the street designers’, who are tasked with making intuitive, easily understood intersections. If that isn’t happening — and apparently it isn’t — just calling on everyone to change their behavior is an inadequate strategy.

Another unique aspect of this intersection is the southbound-to-eastbound left turn lane on 400 West, which is just to the right of the diagonal stripes in the picture above. You can see in the picture that the space used to be a left turn lane, but at some point was striped out and turned into a kind of dead zone. Now, two southbound lanes are sandwiched between a dedicated right turn lane and the dead zone. The left turn lane is 15-20 feet over, oddly isolated.

I don’t have any inherent quarrel with this dead zone other than the fact that it’s ugly, expensive and wasteful. But in terms of safety, I never really thought it was a problem.

But most streets don’t have big dead zones in the middle. So, if that’s one of the things that makes this intersection unique, and this intersection is more dangerous than most, perhaps there is a connection. If I had to guess, I’d bet people are unused to empty space in the middle of the street; they see it, observe that there are no cars and proceed because that’s what you do in every other spot. Sadly, however, cars such as mine have been directed to an entirely different spot on the street and sometimes they get missed.

That’s just speculation. But ultimately repeat accidents in the same spot don’t happen because everybody is a terrible driver. Rather, they happen because failings in the built environment amplify the risk of otherwise accepted behaviors. My accident was just one small incident that ultimately doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. But as I sit here with a broken car and a sore back I wonder how many more crashes it will take before we finally do something about Salt Lake City’s dangerous streets.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Could uncontrolled intersections reduce accidents? | About Town

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