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Distracted Drivers Cause a Third of Route 4 Crashes, Data Shows

Hartford — From texting behind the wheel to turning around to talk to passengers — and many more distractions in between — officials say a wavering focus has contributed to more than a third of injury-related crashes on Route 4 from Bridgewater to Hartford in the past five years.

“Distracted driving/inattention” was cited in 35 percent of those collisions, according to data compiled by the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance.

Yet officials say it’s likely that the figure, largely based on drivers’ self-reporting to accidents’ first responders, is actually much higher. Driver distraction is “probably the most under-reported circumstance” contributing to crashes, said Kevin Marshia, assistant director of the Program Development Division at Vermont’s Agency of Transportation.

“Crashes are called crashes because they could be avoided, and the majority of all crashes are caused by some form of driver behavior,” such as inattention, drowsiness or driving under the influence, he said.

The Highway Safety Alliance, a collaborative including VTrans and nearly 70 other agencies statewide, has compiled a wide range of statistics related to Route 4 during the period from January 2008 to June 8 of this year on a webpage dedicated to the road online. (It can be found at http://highwaysafety.vermont.gov/Rt4.htm)

State and local agencies have zeroed their focus onto the thoroughfare following a spike of serious accidents there, which prompted Gov. Peter Shumlin to pledge short-term safety improvements and an eventual overhaul during a roundtable of stakeholders last month.

Other statistics from the study period include:

∎ A total of 392 crashes occurred, compared with 300 in the previous five-year period. Of the 392 crashes, seven were fatal, including four this year.

∎ The most frequent area for crashes was between Route 12 and Interstate 89, where 165 crashes occurred. Fewer than 70 crashes apiece took place within Woodstock Village and between the Interstate and Route 5.

∎ The time period between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. saw the most collisions, and three-quarters of the crashes happened during daylight hours.

∎ Drivers between the ages of 30 to 65 years old were involved in 71 percent of crashes.

∎ Passenger cars and pickup trucks accounted for 89 percent of all vehicles involved in crashes.

∎ Head-on crashes represented 6 percent of total crashes and 71 percent of fatal crashes.

The road has also seen an increase in traffic in recent years, according to separate information kept by VTrans. An average of 10,800 drivers pass over the road daily between Costello Road and the Quechee Gorge, up from 8,300 in 2008, the earliest year that data is available for that location. Other areas of the road have seen more moderate increases: Traffic near the Gorge was at about 9,400 drivers a day in 2003. After dipping to 8,800 in 2008 and 2009, that figure rose to 9,700 last year.

While the road has seen more than 30 crashes since 2008 where drivers crossed the centerline, none were fatal until this year, when four head-on crashes have resulted in five deaths, according to the data.

Investigators have not disclosed whether they are looking into distraction or sought cell phone records in any of the four fatal crashes in Hartford and Woodstock this year. Most recently, a 46-year-old Enfield man, Timothy Farewell, was cited for negligent operation of a vehicle in a May crash that killed Bridgewater resident Norma Sawyer in Woodstock. He is scheduled to appear in Vermont District Court at the end of this month.

According to Distraction.gov, a website run by the federal government, distracted driving includes “any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving,” In addition to use of cell phones, examples include reading, eating, grooming, adjusting the radio and more.

While Marshia acknowledged the “poor conditions” such as slim shoulders and uneven pavement that many Route 4 drivers have lamented, he said there’s “some responsibility on the driver’s side, too.”

Nevertheless, in the case of Route 4 and more broadly, Marshia said the goal for VTrans is to educate drivers while also installing infrastructure that is more forgiving when they make mistakes.

“For the most part we’re looking to deploy solutions that minimize the consequences of that poor driver behavior,” he said. That can include installing things such as guardrails and centerline rumble stripes designed to jolt drivers who are drifting from their lanes. The stripes are planned for a 31/2 -mile stretch in Hartford this summer.

Hartland resident Nada Pierce, 77, was on Route 12 recently when she said a man who appeared to be in his late 20s or early 30s was drifting about 2 feet over the center line as he was driving toward her.

“And I thought, ‘Oh boy, where am I going to go?’ ” she said. “And at that moment, he looked up long enough to get his car over on his side of the road, so he was fine, but it wasn’t like he looked up and was surprised, he just kind of looked up and looked back down.”

While the incident didn’t take place on Route 4, she said she’s noticed young drivers seem to be holding onto their cell phones behind the wheel.

“They’ve got to put those things in their pockets and leave it there,” she said. “You can be distracted just for a few seconds and it’s too late.”

Woodstock Police Chief Robbie Blish and Hartford Public Safety Director Steve Locke said their departments and State Police have increased their patrols along the corridor. Marshia said that VTrans is in the process of collecting speed data at four points along the road that soon will help police focus on the most effective times and locations for patrols.

Locke said Hartford is anticipating a $5,000 grant from the state to help with overtime costs related to the extra patrols.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. About 9,400 vehicles a day traveled on Route 4 near the Quechee Gorge in 2003, 8,800 in 2008 and 2009, and 9,700 last year. An earlier version of this story misstated those figures.

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