#6456 - 121017 traffic fatalities chart

Columbia County officials want to improve online access to vehicle crash information, but the information currently available has some gaps.

During the Columbia County Traffic Safety Commission’s Nov. 10 meeting, members of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Columbia County Sheriff’s Office explained the DOT’s Community Maps program. The program offers a visual database plotting vehicle crashes throughout the state between January 2001 and now. The survey presents detailed data points, but officials cautioned that many are missing.

“It’s not super reliable,” said Department of Transportation Regional Safety Engineer Ryan Mayer. “They’re thinking that next year it will be.”

The program has been dependent on input from county authorities, which has been sporadic, though Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Todd Horn said Columbia County will be more reliable in uploading data to the system.

The red dots do not reveal any secret dangers hidden among the county’s highways, but highlight expected accident numbers along high-volume commuter routes.

“When you hear about an accident, there are a couple locations that are more serious because of past experience,” said Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Wayne Smith, “like (Highways) 22, 60 and 51 and the interchanges there which are a particularly accident-prone area.”

“Obviously when we go through those traffic accidents, we look at what occurred and how it occurred and what were the contributing or non-contributing factors, and look at what could be done with the highway to alleviate some of that,” said Columbia County Highway Commissioner Chris Hardy.

One such intersection that was discussed at length is where County Highway E and Highway 73 meet near the Dodge County border.

During the meeting, Horn played a video of dashboard camera footage showing a driver’s view as a semi-truck cruises east on County Highway E, nondescript farmland passing on either side, quickly approaching the intersection and then the audio picks up one fleeting expletive as a passenger van hits the passenger side of the truck, tipping it over.

A 40-year-old woman had been driving the van with kids on board and a camper in tow. She was flown by medical helicopter from the scene, but did not survive.

The cause of the crash remains undetermined.

“The reality is that speed and attention to driving are the major factors in crashes,” Smith said. “A lot of people call them accidents, but we use the word crash because an accident is something that is probably not preventable.”

Distracted driving is not limited to phone use, Smith said, but includes eating in the car, using a GPS, putting on makeup, or even reading a newspaper in the car.

The Columbia County Highway Department received requests for something to be done about the highways E and 73 intersection, with rumble strips being installed within the past week.

“Obviously when we go through those traffic accidents, we look at what occurred and how it occurred and what were the contributing or non-contributing factors, and look at what could be done with the highway to alleviate some of that,” said Hardy. “Rumble strips are a great device, but also, for certain people in certain situations, they are a nuisance, because they are loud. And so that can become a real political issue.”

Another historically dangerous stretch of road surrounds the intersections of Highways 60, 22 and 51. In that case, the Department of Transportation has more dramatic plans, with a proposed roundabout.

“Initially there was a lot of resistance,” said Mayer of the regional roundabout installations, “but the more we get them out there, for the most part, people are happy with them.”

The roundabout changes the speed and direction of oncoming traffic to all but eliminate the possibility of devastating broadside collisions, and the simpler design the better, with a single lane setup being “about fool proof,” according to Mayer.

“It can lessen the likelihood of a major injury,” said Hardy. “And the way that they are designed and built, you come in at a different speed. Even if you are coming in fast, there are features there that make you slow down.”

The roundabout, which is funded roughly 90 percent through the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program is still in the discussion phase. A public hearing is planned from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday at the Leeds Town Hall.