Solutions proposed for intersection

The best way to prevent future crashes at the same Taylorsville site where a local basketball star was seriously injured one year ago is to block off what makes it a full intersection.

That’s the opinion of Hillary Louther, Indiana Department of Transportation traffic engineer, who has suggested closing the median break between northbound and southbound U.S. 31 where it intersects with Bear Lane to the east and a frontage road entrance to the west.

If those steps — which Louther describes as dramatic — were taken, drivers on the frontage road would be routed south to Tannehill Road and then left to the traffic signal, in order to get to the highway’s northbound lanes.

“That’s the solution that would cure everything,” Louther told the Bartholomew County Commissioners last week. Similar changes to intersections by the Michigan Department of Transportation reduced the number and severity of accidents, she said.

Josh Speidel, a standout basketball player for Columbus North, was severely injured in a car accident at the Bear Lane intersection at U.S. 31 on Feb. 1 of last year.

The accident happened as he was driving off the frontage road access and attempted to cross the southbound lanes of the highway in order to go north. During the nighttime crash, the Columbus North senior’s Honda Accord was struck on the driver’s side by a Chevrolet Traverse traveling southbound on U.S. 31 at about 50 mph. Speidel was critically injured with traumatic brain injury and is continuing his recovery.

Analyzing the scene

Several months after the crash, a small local group led by Columbus attorney Richard Eynon hired an Indianapolis company that analyzes traffic-accident scenes to suggest improvements at the crash site.Although a complete INDOT analysis with specific causes and consequences isn’t available, Louther said preliminary data indicates the number of accidents at the Bear Lane intersection went up last year compared with 2014 figures. She declined to release actual numbers from the analysis until the report is complete.While state highway officials do not have any improvements planned now, Louther said that doesn’t mean the improvements can’t be made based on the recommendations from Injury and Crash Analysis LLC of Indianapolis.

When the report was given to the commissioners Jan. 25, Eynon asked them to schedule a joint meeting with INDOT and use their influence to advocate for the suggested improvements.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 8, Louther and INDOT technical services director Rebecca Gross spoke with the commissioners during their regular public meeting.

“(U.S. 31 and Bear Lane) is a very wide intersection,” Louther said, describing the four lanes of southbound traffic at the intersection. “That’s always a problem.”

However, she described closing the median as a huge undertaking and”very much an extreme that would involve traffic-flow changes that might have negative consequences for neighboring businesses.

In addition, she said similar dramatic changes may also have to be implemented on the frontage road north of Interstate 65, across the highway from the heavily congested Edinburgh Premium Outlets complex.

“But that doesn’t mean it should be taken off the table,” Louther said.

Lo

wering the speed limit? Since consideration of a median closure could take more than a year, the commissioners suggested that lowering speeds might be a more immediate safety measure. The commissioned report estimates that 30,000 vehicles travel through the intersection daily at 55 or 60 mph.

“It feels like it should be less than that,” commissioner Larry Kleinhenz said. “It’s a semi-retail type of area, and people misjudge the speed of vehicles coming off the interstate.”

In response, Louther said Indiana code requires INDOT to undertake procedures that include a thorough speed study before it is allowed to change highway speeds in any location.

The minimum short-term step that Eynon said he is asking the county commissioners to spearhead is to install new lighting at the frontage road intersection.

Since future developers of nearby commercial property might have specific requirements, there has likely been a reluctance to install anything, Kleinhenz said.

But Eynon suggested that INDOT and the commissioners proceed as if they had just received an initial request to develop the vacant land.

“If you did that, I think you would find (the area) flawed in a lot of places,” Eynon said.

No red flags

In late January, INDOT spokesman Harry Maginity said preliminary crash statistics had not raised any red flags that there were safety issues that need to be addressed at the intersection. Eynon agreed that if those basic numbers were the sole criteria, it might appear that improvements are unwarranted.“Instead, I’m asking you to consider the whole dangerous nature of that intersection described in the report,” Eynon said.

The commissioners said they had realized there were traffic deficiencies and hazards around the U.S. 31 and I-65 interchange for some time.

When proposed solutions are evaluated and considered, it should be done in a full partnership between INDOT and the commissioners, Louther suggested.

Eynon has repeatedly stated he has no client with a potential lawsuit in the wings, and is only interested in taking steps to prevent further serious or fatal accidents.

But that didn’t prevent the Columbus attorney from warning both INDOT and county officials there are plenty of others in his line of work.

“I’ve had some crashes there as a litigation attorney in the past before it was built up,” Eynon said. “A litigation attorney wants to know if a crash was foreseeable. That’s what we look for, right off the bat.”

What's next?

Bartholomew County commissioner Larry Kleinhenz has asked two Indiana Department of Transportation representatives to work with other INDOT officials on evaluating safety conditions at the intersection of U.S. 31 and Bear Lane. 

INDOT is asking the commissioners to work as full partners with them in future decisions and improvements regarding the Taylorsville intersection.

Kleinhenz requested that another joint meeting be scheduled for early to mid-March, in order to share new research and findings.

Recommendations

Recommendations for the intersection of U.S. 31 and Bear Lane submitted on Jan. 25 to the Bartholomew County commissioners by Injury and Crash Analysis, LLC of Indianapolis include:

  • Adding overhead lighting to improve night vision, which is hampered at the intersection by background lighting.
  • Direct all traffic on the west-side frontage road wishing to return to U.S. 31 to first go south to Tannehill Road (County Road 650N), turn left and use the traffic signal to get back on the highway.
  • Allowing only right turns at the intersection of U.S. 31 and Bear Lane.
Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.