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Police Chiefs Back Route 4 Rumble Strips

Hartford — Police in the two towns that have responded to a rash of fatal car accidents along a Vermont state road in recent months are swinging their support behind the installation of centerline “rumble strips” along portions of Route 4.

The endorsement comes just as the state prepares to undertake $300,000 of maintenance work on a stretch of the road.

Hartford Deputy Police Chief Brad Vail and Woodstock Police Chief Robbie Blish yesterday said that they would like to see installation of the strips, which cause cars to vibrate and alert drivers when they ride over them, added along portions of the 3.5-mile stretch of Route 4 that the Vermont Agency of Transportation is set to begin repairing this summer.

They join the two towns’ fire chiefs, who urged installation of the strips last week following recent fatalities.

At the same time, the police chiefs acknowledged they didn’t expect the strips fully to prevent accidents, although they expressed hope it would nonetheless boost safety along the heavily-traveled road.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be the end-all, because I don’t know why these vehicles are crossing the line,” Vail said. “It could be distracted driving; it could be because (drivers are) going around the ruts in the road.”

Blish added that the most useful location for the strips would be those stretches where the road curves and the speed limit is posted at 50 miles per hour, while noting he thought it would be a good idea to lower the speed limit along those sections in Woodstock to 40 miles per hour. By contrast, the top speed limit in Hartford along Route 4 is 45 miles per hour.

Ken Robie, the program manager for the Highway Safety & Design Section at VTrans, said yesterday that the department is planning to reach out soon to fire and police officials in both Woodstock and Hartford to get their input, and then consider holding a municipal safety forum in the area. Rumble strips, when installed on larger road projects, have cost between $500 and $1,000 per mile, he said.

“I do think they’d be helpful,” Blish said. “I don’t know that they would have to do every single mile of Route 4, but I certainly think that they would be helpful in a lot of the sections.”

Robie said the state is planning to upgrade Route 4 gradually in stages over the next 10 years. The first stage, a “leveling” that involves workers thinly paving over portions of the road that are in poor condition, would cost approximately $300,000 and extend about 3.5 miles of road, from near the Interstate-89 Exit 1 interchange to shortly before Deweys Mills Road in Quechee.

The leveling, according to Robie, is akin to a Band-Aid approach rather than a full-fledged rebuilding of the road.

“It’s a stopgap,” Robie said. “It’s a short-term, temporary fix until a more involved project can come through.”

What he called the “intermediate” stage, a full paving of the section of road that is due to be completed within five years, can cost between $300,000 and $1.2 million per mile, according to VTrans.

Long term, the state plans a “full-depth reconstruction” of portions of Route 4 that would layer sand, crushed stone and pavement, and would cost between $4 million and $5 million per mile, estimates VTrans.

Although there’s not yet a set time for this year’s construction to begin, Robie said, the state would likely give Route 4 priority over other roadways due to both the recent accidents and the deteriorating quality of its surface. Sections of Route 4 further west, such as a “very poor” stretch that wends through Taftsville, will also be given high priority, he said.

According to a VTrans map that details 2012 pavement conditions on state roads to the tenths of miles, the 3.5-mile stretch in Hartford is at various points in “fair,” “poor” and “very poor” condition. Though those conditions aren’t as dire as nearby roads, such as 22 miles of Route 12 from Hartland to Barnard that are in uniformly “very poor” condition, officials said higher traffic volume along Route 4, plus its curves and arguably high speed limits, make it more of a priority for repair.

Robie said that there are 3,200 “lane miles” of state roads in Vermont. Of those, 800 miles are in “very poor” condition. Under normal funding, the department can treat about 300 of those miles per year.

But it has been the fatalities that have cast Route 4 in a negative spotlight over the past few months.

In March, Corey Daniels, 38, of Hartford, and Nina Dimick, 63, of Woodstock, died in a three-car collision after police said Daniels’ car crossed the center line near the Fat Hat Factory, struck the rear wheel of a utility vehicle going the other way and collided head-on with Dimick.

A few weeks ago, Patience Hutt, 40, of Hartland, died when her vehicle collided with an empty horse trailer on a Route 4 curve at the Hartford-Hartland town line.

Vail said the March crash that involved two deaths was the result of a centerline crossing, but he wouldn’t speculate on the cause of this month’s auto fatality until Hartford hears from the state’s accident reconstruction team. He said the department hasn’t blamed either crash on cell phone usage while driving.

“Out of all the accidents that we have investigated out there recently, none have really been speed related,” Vail said. “It’s been crossing the line. So the rumble strips would definitely help.”

On Thursday, a 22-year-old woman from South Royalton crossed the center line on Route 4 while using her cell phone, police said, and over-corrected, crashing into a guard rail west of the intersection of Quechee Main Street. Neither she nor her 9-month-old son were injured in the crash.

Less than three hours earlier, 84-year-old Norma Sawyer, of Bridgewater, died after her car collided with a box truck on Route 4 in West Woodstock. Blish said Woodstock police have examined phone records, but declined to comment further as the investigation is still ongoing.

Blish said that the hazardous driving conditions along Route 4, caused by divots, curves and the road’s proximity to guardrails, is amply evident.

On the center lines, for example, it’s possible to “see where the paint is worn off,” Blish said, an indicator that cars frequently drift over the center line.

So centerline strips, then, could alert drivers when they were approaching danger. Robie said that VTrans this year issued guidance for road repair projects saying that strips should always be considered for installation. Since the strips were first introduced in Vermont in 2009, the state has deployed them on a couple of projects each year, Robie said, but with the new protocol that number should increase.

The department currently has plans to lay down 38 miles of the centerline strips on Route 2 in Grand Isle, Vt., in the northwest part of the state, this summer.

“I suspect you’ll see them much more frequently starting next year,” he said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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