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Editorial: Warning Signs; New Data on Route 4 Crashes

Perhaps the most surprising thing in newly released data about motor vehicle accidents on Route 4 over the past five years is that only 35 percent of injury-related crashes were attributed to driver distraction or inattention.

As staff writer Maggie Cassidy reported in the Sunday Valley News, officials say the percentage probably is much higher, because the number is based on what drivers told first responders at the scene. Who wants to be on record as driving while distracted?

The context for the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance compiling these statistics and others about Route 4 between Bridgewater and Hartford is a shocking number of fatal accidents in the corridor this year — four so far, resulting in five deaths — and plans by state officials to make improvements to the road, including repaving a section and installing rumble stripes to alert drivers when they drift over the center line.

Distracted driving is certainly nothing new, but technology is providing ever more possibilities for it. Added to traditional distractions such as talking with passengers, checking on the kids in the back seat and changing the radio station, cell phones calls and texting have created a virtual siren song luring drivers from a laser-like focus on the task at hand.

A couple of Forum correspondents have contended on these pages that the condition of the road, with its badly deteriorated pavement and narrow shoulders, has nothing to do with the problem and that everything would be fine if people just paid closer attention to what they were doing. We suppose that might be true — as well as beside the point. If people’s minds, and therefore their vehicles, are wandering, then it makes good sense to build infrastructure that is more forgiving of driver error, as transportation officials plan to do.

his is especially true in light of some of the other statistics in Cassidy’s story. One is the sheer number of all accidents, which totaled 392 from January 2008 to June 8 of this year. In the previous five-year period, there were 300. State officials caution that the numbers for the earlier period may not be completely reliable because a new reporting system was initiated during that period; nonetheless, it would appear that accidents are definitely trending upward.

A second factor that deserves attention is an increase in the volume of traffic. According to the Vermont Department of Transportation, an average of 10,800 vehicles traverse Route 4 daily between Costello Road and Quechee Gorge, up from 8,300 in 2008, the earliest year that data is available for that location. Traffic near the Gorge itself fell from 9,400 vehicles a day in 2003 to 8,800 in 2008 and 2009, but has since rebounded to 9,700. One assumes that these numbers might well continue to rise as the national economy recovers from the Great Recession. This suggests to us that higher traffic volume is also playing a role in the accident equation: more cars, less margin for error.

The traffic situation in the corridor where the Interstate 89 exit and entrance ramps meet Route 4 was recently described by the District 3 Environmental Commission as “already unreasonably congested and unsafe and has been noted for many years.” This, and the new trove of accident statistics, should raise warning flags about any future large-scale development proposed in that area, and we hope planners will take note.