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East County drivers see red at intersections

The Outlook's readers tell us which intersections are the most frightening or just plain annoying
by: Jim Clark The corner of Northeast Halsey Street and Northeast 238th Drive, the site of 10 crashes in 2011.

The Outlook recently asked readers to share their opinions on the traffic intersections in East County that they 'hate, fear, dread or just plain don't like.'

Readers, many of whom said they were longtime East County residents, picked a variety of intersections, sharing amusing stories of bad drivers and of accidents and near-collisions that they were either involved in or witnessed.

Gresham resident Suzan Wilson asked, 'Have you got an afternoon?' in her email response to The Outlook. Wilson cited the two-lane left turn from Northeast 223rd Avenue to Glisan Street, which she now avoids after she nearly hit a Gresham police car while making the turn in her new car one dark and cold morning.

Wilson, noting she's never had a ticket in her life, writes that she was making the left turn and apparently hugged the left-hand portion of the lane, crowding out the police car in the other left-turn lane.

The officer stopped her, but luckily decided not to give her a ticket, leaving her driving record intact, she says.

Another reader cited the intersection at 174th Avenue and the curvy Southeast Foster Road as a place where risk taking is a sport played between cross traffic and the drivers making a left turn.

Two readers complained about the long waits for the signals at Orient Drive and Palmquist Road, even when there's no cross traffic.

Longtime Gresham resident Diane Basden says she sees close calls on the Northeast Kane Drive intersections with Stark Street and Powell Valley Road about twice a week. She says the problem is tied to the recently installed flashing yellow arrow turn signals at the intersections, which allow drivers to make a left turn if there is no oncoming traffic or pedestrians in the crosswalk.

However, many drivers do not seem to understand what those flashing yellow arrows mean, Basden says.

Basden says she recently saw a taxi make a left turn onto Kane Drive from Stark Street against the flashing yellow arrow, even though the oncoming traffic still had a green light. Luckily, a truck managed to stop before it collided with the taxi, she says.

Basden says she and her husband made the same mistake when they started to turn left onto Kane Drive from Powell Valley Road because they assumed that through traffic had a red light.

'We backed off right away,' she says. 'When traffic was coming (at us) and not stopping, we caught on real quick.'

242nd Avenue and Stark Street

To get to her morning and afternoon shifts as a daycare provider in Gresham, Fairview resident Susan Viator drives through the intersection at 242nd Avenue and Stark Street four times a day.

It's an intersection where she sees an accident or a near-accident at least once a week.

One problem, Viator says, is the narrow window of time drivers have to make a left turn, making traffic get backed up. When the left-turn light finally changes to green, it seems to let just four cars go through before changing back to red, she says, leading her to think 'there's just a man in a box who pushes buttons and laughs.'

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Viator was the fifth car in the left-turn lane on 242nd Avenue, waiting to turn onto Stark Street. She suspected the light would change to red before she got to the intersection. She made her turn while the signal was still yellow, but the driver behind her ran the red light.

Viator says she's careful to stop for red lights at the intersection no matter how long she's been waiting. Others? Well, let's just say they lack her patiences.

There have been instances when drivers following her have slammed on their brakes and screeched to a halt within an inch of her back bumper, which is usually followed by 'screaming and arm gestures' from those drivers.

'People do stupid things when they become impatient, endangering everyone else on the road,' Viator says.

Because she relies on her 1997 Ford Expedition to get to work, Viator says a car accident is the last thing she needs. Although she has tried using other routes to get to work and home, Viator says most of them are not really practical for her.

The 242nd Avenue and Stark Street intersection is not the only problematic intersection, she says. There's 223rd Avenue and Halsey Street, where she often sees people running red lights. She also dislikes all the intersections on Division Street and half the intersections on Burnside Road, especially at Powell Boulevard.

Viator, an East County resident since 1989, says she's driven in other West Coast cities. With the possible exception of Seattle, she's never seen crazier drivers than in Oregon.

While acknowledging traffic congestion is inevitable in such a fast-growing area, Viator wonders if East County's traffic engineers ever drive the roads they oversee.

'They should get in their car and go driving during rush hour, lunch, different times of the day, and see how long many people have to wait,' Viator says, 'and see how many people don't want to wait any longer.'

Changing intersections

Randy Shannon, a civil engineer with the city of Gresham, says the city receives phone calls from the public 'just about every other day' on traffic and road issues.

Phone calls regarding safety at intersections are forwarded to a traffic engineer, who will check the intersection and see if something can and should be done.

Because money is tight, the city may only fund two to three big transportation projects a year out of the hundreds of projects on the city's wish list, Shannon says.

Stop signs cost less than $1,000, while new traffic signals cost about $250,000, not including the curb and road work that goes along with the installation, he says.

When the city rebuilds an intersection, the cost may run around $400,000, depending on a number of factors such as the size of the street or the cost of buying land, Shannon says. He says the city is currently working on final design and land acquisition at Southeast Division Street and 182nd Avenue, one of the more troublesome intersections for crashes.

To help improve dangerous intersections, Shannon says the city has sought grants from sources such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The grants judge intersections on the number of accidents and injuries over a few years divided by the volume of traffic going through the intersection.

One of those grants helped the city install tubular markers at Northeast 181st Avenue and Halsey Street to clearly separate the traffic lanes and to prevent drivers from making left turns out of driveways near the intersection, reducing the potential for T-bone collisions.

Shannon says new safety features can also have their own drawbacks. Studies of red-light cameras at intersections indicate that T-bone collisions tend to decrease while the number of rear-end collisions increase as drivers slam on the brakes to avoid getting a ticket, he says.

Even adding stop signs to a stretch of road can make it more dangerous, Shannon says, as drivers may start to accelerate quickly in between stops. If too many stop signs are installed in a neighborhood, he says, drivers may eventually start to ignore them.

'We're dealing with human nature,' Shannon says. 'How do they behave? And it's not necessarily the way we want them to behave.'

As for the long waits at traffic signals, Shannon says signals can be programmed to stay green for longer during peak traffic hours. A few years ago, Gresham installed adaptive coordinated traffic signals on Burnside Road, which allows through traffic to proceed with little interruption, even though traffic on cross streets such as Main Avenue may have to wait longer for a green light.

If it seems that the traffic signal is taking too long to change even when there's no cross traffic, Shannon says the waiting vehicle may not have properly triggered the signal sensor in the asphalt - a problem especially for motorcycles. If the sensor has malfunctioned, he says, the traffic signal can be programmed to an automatic setting that always assumes there are cars waiting in the left-turn lanes.

The flashing yellow arrow turn signals at intersections like Powell Valley Road and Kane Drive were installed a few years ago. The lights allow drivers making a left turn to take advantage of gaps in through traffic to make the turn earlier, he says.

Shannon says he's also hoping to build roundabouts, which are not cheap but have been shown to keep traffic steadily moving and to reduce accidents that cause injury and death by 90 percent.

Acknowledging that some drivers may not understand unfamiliar traffic technology such as flashing yellow turn arrows or roundabouts, Shannon says traffic engineers are always studying driver behavior. If there's a problem, the city may add additional signs or road markings, he says.

'People are adaptable,' he says. 'The first time they see it, they may not understand it. By the third time they may have figured it out.'

Counting cars

Are East County's intersections dangerous, or does the perception that they're dangerous not match the reality?

The East Metro Connections Plan, which studies East County's current and future transportation needs through the year 2035, identifies several high-priority corridor areas based on the amount and severity of crashes.

Those corridors are 181st Avenue between Interstate 84 and the Rockwood triangle at Burnside Street; Division Street between 157th and 182nd avenues; the Hogan/Burnside/Powell triangle; and 257th Avenue and Cherry Park Road near Reynolds High School and Mt. Hood Community College.

And in a 15-question survey conducted by the East Metro Connections Plan Steering Committee in summer 2011, respondents voiced plenty of concerns about the same intersections in the area. (The survey results are available at bit.ly/w1h2wv.)

In 2011, four of Gresham's most dangerous intersections for crashes were on 181st Avenue where it connects with Glisan, Powell, Halsey and Stark streets, according to Gresham police. The Hogan Drive and Stark Street intersection rounded out the top five.

Caryn Shetterly, crime analyst for the Gresham Police Department, says the same intersections have tended to jockey for the top spots since she started collecting data in 2009.

The Northeast 181st Avenue and Glisan Street intersection recorded 24 traffic crashes in 2011, or one crash every other week.

According to 2010 traffic counts by the city of Gresham, 181st Avenue has one of the highest volumes of traffic in Gresham, averaging 31,912 vehicles a day between Interstate 84 and Stark Street and 20,165 vehicles a day between Stark Street and Powell Boulevard. Stark Street averaged about 21,156 cars a day passing through the Hogan Drive intersection in 2010.

In Wood Village, Northeast 238th Drive and Sandy Boulevard had 31 crashes in 2011, according to the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. Northeast 238th Drive and Halsey Street recorded 12 crashes, and 238th Drive at Interstate 84 had 10 crashes.

Fairview's most dangerous intersections tend to connect with Interstate 84 and major roads such as Glisan and Halsey streets, according to Fairview police.

Fairview recently became the second city in Multnomah County after Portland to approve the installation of red-light cameras at busy intersections in an effort to catch red-light runners and to improve safety.



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