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Deadly wreck spurs another look at Howard Road safety

POSTED: July 16, 2013 12:44 p.m.

Area engineers and government officials are returning to a familiar scene of tragedy — Howard Road at Ga. 365 — to see how they can make that busy intersection safer.

An April 28, 2012, crash that killed a Clayton woman triggered a public campaign last year, including a push from Gov. Nathan Deal’s office, to fix the crossing. That resulted in the installation of a traffic light and some other road improvements.

And then on Friday, three people died and six were injured in a wreck involving a Ford F-150 pickup and a tractor-trailer, which overturned.

Gainesville and Hall County officials, including Mayor Danny Dunagan, Councilman Bob Hamrick, Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum and Commissioner Scott Gibbs, state lawmakers, emergency responders, law enforcement and others met Monday afternoon with the Georgia Department of Transportation at its Athens Highway offices to huddle once again over the troubled intersection.

“We’re continuing to have some accidents out there ... but there are some T-bone crashes, and you’d think the signal would address those,” DOT District Engineer Bayne Smith said. “I think we’re really going to focus on what’s causing those.

“If people are obeying the signal, those shouldn’t be happening.”

Gainesville police Cpl. Kevin Holbrook has said that preliminary information in Friday’s wreck shows that the pickup was traveling southbound on Ga. 365 when it attempted to make a left turn in front of a northbound tractor-trailer owned by Fieldale Farms.

The collision caused a chain reaction in which a Ford Escape struck the rear of the overturned tractor-trailer, he said. A Jeep Wrangler was struck possibly after the initial collision.

Authorities have identified those killed in the crash as Raymond McGowan, 36, of Gainesville, who was driving the pickup; Autumn Holton, 17, of Lula, who was in the passenger seat; and Robbin Chitwood, 57, of Lula, a passenger in the Escape.

On Monday, Holbrook had no updates other than the investigation is ongoing. He did say authorities are awaiting toxicology results.

“We are reviewing the accident to determine whether alcohol and/or drugs was a contributing factor in the collision,” he said.

Plastic sheeting and spray paint on pavement in front of the RaceTrac convenience store at the intersection mark the wreck scene.

City officials gave the DOT a list of recommended improvements, including “rumble strips,” or raised markings on the pavement that alert motorists to a potentially dangerous area; more lighting at the intersection; reducing the speed limit from 65 mph; and signals that allow motorists to turn left only on a green arrow, or “protected left.”

“There are pros and cons to the (turn signal),” Smith said. “People who are sitting there at 12:30 at night are waiting, waiting, and no one’s coming, so they can (be) frustrated by those (lights).”

Gainesville Traffic Engineer Dee Taylor said the improvements would be “pretty easy to do.”

“We’re not talking about paving the world, right-of-way acquisition and calling the (Environmental Protection Agency),” he said.

Justifying the left-turn signal “is probably the most difficult of all these,” Taylor said.

“You want to be careful and not to fix your solution to one problem,” he said. “It’s a huge problem; there’s no diluting that. The people who have lost their lives out there — you don’t want that to be in vain.”

As for reducing the speed, the signal “hasn’t done a whole lot to slow people down,” Taylor said.

“But that’s not really the job of the signal. The signal is just to provide a right-of-way opportunity for conflicting traffic to cross unimpeded.”

State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, who left the meeting early, said he believes that some of the problem stems from motorists who are “unaccustomed or unfamiliar with the area.”

“They’re going down (Interstate) 85, then (Interstate) 985 and then all of the sudden, on Ga. 365, they come to an intersection with a red light.”

Fixing problems in the Howard Road area is “going to be a real challenge because of the speeds that are traveled along that road and the number of cars on that road,” said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.

The area “is fraught with problems,” he added. “We’re going to have to have a combination of items that would minimize the danger, but to eliminate it is going to be very, very difficult.”


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