Maybe he cites a curve that's too tight or a traffic light that leaves precious little time for a left turn, or even a long, flat stretch of pavement that encourages a normally careful driver to open 'er up and see how fast this baby can go.
In any case, the man on the street says, the horrible wreck could have been prevented if only the curve were straightened or the hill were smoothed over or a traffic light were installed or removed or just re-timed. But the engineers who build the road and the cops who patrol them say that all the straightening, smoothing, timing and everything else in their power can't stop catastrophic wrecks from occurring.
"We're dealing with people here," says Sgt. Randy Lane, who heads the accident investigation unit for the Gwinnett County police. "They can lose it any- time, anywhere."
A person is killed in a car wreck in Gwinnett more than once every six days on average. While the death toll hasn't risen out of line with the county's burgeoning population -- Gwinnett police worked 64 fatalities in 2000, compared with 67 the year before -- many wrecks have received so much coverage in newspapers and on the local TV news that the cumulative effect can seem like an epidemic.
Adding to the public awareness is the fact that teen driving has become the hottest issue in the General Assembly this year, sparked in part by the death of 16-year-old Shiloh High student Kirby Cruce, driving home from a high school keg party in August, and fanned by a January wreck that killed Gwinnett's Lauren Zauche, 18, across the line in Walton County.
But overburdened roads and long, frustrating commutes -- as are the norm in much of Gwinnett -- combine to make some roads and intersections unsafe for any age.
Catastrophic wrecks have become a high-profile problem, and one that is proving difficult to solve. Police can enforce speed limits, DUI laws and other rules of the road, but can't be everywhere at once. And traffic engineers can reconfigure roads and intersections to reduce the number of accidents. But experts say trying to stop the confluence of factors that turn a normal crash into one that kills can be like trying to swat a fly by whacking the window sill it just buzzed off of.
"Fatal accidents are like lightning," Lane says. "You never know where they're going to occur."
That doesn't mean officials aren't trying. The Gwinnett Department of Transportation has just begun to dent a list of some 300 safety-improvement projects it hopes to get to with money from the local-option sales tax, according to Brian Allen, the department's director. Some are as simple as adding sidewalks near schools; others are as complex and expensive as building medians in packed intersections to prevent drivers from turning left across traffic into businesses.
And the state has improvements of its own in mind: Long-planned efforts to transform Ga. 316 into a controlled-access freeway all the way to Athens are still in the works, but in the meantime drivers daydreaming at 70 mph still slam on the brakes when a traffic light pops up in the middle of farmland. And the maze of reversible lanes on U.S. 78 -- where lanes go one way in the morning and another in the afternoon -- also may be cleaned up. Until it is, though, proponents of rebuilding the road say the highway is a head-on collision waiting to happen.
The projects are prioritized to ease trouble in spots both where a number of less-serious accidents occur and where the most severe wrecks are likely. Unfortunately, those are not always the same places.
Not surprisingly, the busiest intersections in the county typically rack up the most accidents. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, more cars collided at the intersection of Jimmy Carter and Dawson boulevards than anywhere else in the county -- a total of 119 wrecks. That intersection is the third-busiest in Gwinnett, according to county figures.
But it's not the most dangerous. There were 11 fewer wrecks at Jimmy Carter and Buford Highway that year, but 55 of them -- just over half -- involved injuries. At Jimmy Carter and Dawson, however, fewer than a third of the wrecks involved injuries. Likewise, for other crowded corners, such as at Steve Reynolds Boulevard and Club Drive or Pleasant Hill Road at Club Drive.
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