No one ever thinks a trip to the grocery store as dangerous. But just a few years ago if you made that trip through the intersection of Flamingo Road and Pines Boulevard in Pembroke Pines, Fla., you were risking your life.
That intersection, where two six-lane roads intersect near a major shopping mall, was once the most dangerous intersection in the United States. Over a two-year period in the mid-2000s, there were 357 traffic accidents at the intersection, even though it had signals and designated turn lanes.
The designation as “most dangerous” intersection came from State Farm Insurance. Dick Luedke, a spokesman for the company, was involved in the project that looked at the most dangerous intersections in the country.
“We did that study 10 years ago, and we’re still getting feedback on it today. We really struck a nerve,” said Luedke.
State Farm took the unusual step then of not only listing the most dangerous intersections, but offering to work with communities to help them improve the safety of those intersections. Luedke said State Farm offers a $100,000 grant to each of the communities on the nation’s most dangerous intersection list and $20,000 grants to communities that were among the most dangerous in their state, but not on the national list.
Many of the communities, including Pembroke Pines, took State Farm up on its offer, but many others did not.
“There were some logistical, and in some cases, legal issues that inhibited some of them from taking part,” said Luedke. “And certainly some turned us down because they did not believe their intersections were flawed, and that their intersection should not have been on our list.”
In addition, some communities challenged the company’s methodology. “We didn’t pretend to have the definitive list. Auto safety was the goal, and this was an effective way to do this. We got way more attention than we ever imagined we would.”
While most insurance companies are recognized for responding in the wake of a disaster, Luedke says State Farm in this instance wanted to be proactive.
“It is in our interest to be concerned about auto safety,” said Luedke.
He pointed out that State Farm is the nation’s largest auto insurer with 18 percent of policies, and with that comes a lot of accident data. (Allstate is second with 11 percent.)
Luedke said that when State Farm created its list, the company wasn’t trying to get communities to redesign their intersections, although in some cases that was necessary.
“There were cheaper fixes out there, like better signage,” said Luedke. “That was the thrust, showing that it didn’t have to be expensive to fix the problem.”
Joining Pembroke Pines on that list was Red Lion Road and Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia (331 accidents); Clearview Parkway and Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metarie, La. (328 accidents); 51st Street and Memorial Drive in Tulsa, Okla. (304 accidents); and State Highway 121 and Preston Road in Frisco, Texas (280 accidents).
So what makes an intersection dangerous?
Kelly Hanahan, a public affairs specialist for the Federal Highway Administration, says the amount of traffic is an obvious reason, but less obvious is road construction, signage (or the lack of it), traffic control devices (or the lack of them), visibility, particularly if there are a lot of trees or weeds obscuring visibility.
The Federal Highway Administration also said dangerous intersections don’t have to be on busy roads, either. While highways with lots of traffic get most of the attention, fully 50 percent of traffic accidents happen on rural roads. And based on the percentage of accidents against traffic counts, some rural roads can have a higher accident rate than major highways or interstates.
Federal Highway Administration statistics show that there were 33,808 traffic fatalities in the nation in 2009 with 7,043 of them – nearly 21 percent – at or near intersections.
“Intersection safety is a national, state and local priority,” says the FHWA website. “Intersections represent a disproportionate share of the safety problem. As a result, organizations such as the FHWA, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the American Automobile Association, and other private and public organizations are devoting resources to help reduce the problem.”
Hanahan says most intersection fatalities occur during daylight under so-called normal weather conditions when it’s not raining or snowing. In addition, she said one-third of all intersection fatalities occur at intersections with signals, even though only a small percentage of the nation’s intersections have signals.
For drivers who want to find out where the most dangerous intersections are in their area, Hanahan says the FHWA compiles an annual report from all 50 states that lists the top five percent of highway accident locations.
Hanahan says drivers can help minimize accidents at any intersection by buckling up, eliminating distractions by putting down the cell phone, not drinking or eating while driving and slowing down.
“Reducing speed allows a driver to make better decisions and reduces the severity of a crash should one occur,” says Hanahan.
On the other end, communities and states are working with insurance companies and other traffic organizations to improve intersection safety. In Florida, State Farm Insurance is working with Pembroke Pines by helping fund safety studies. Pembroke Pines, with a population of 150,000, took advantage of a 20,000 dollar grant for a safety study from State Farm, and because the intersection of Flamingo Road and Pines Boulevard is one of the most dangerous in the nation, the town also used a 100,000 dollar grant to make safety improvements by adding more east-west lanes to improve traffic flow.