Daily photos by Jonathan Palmer|
A tractor-trailer truck approaches the end of controlled access on Interstate 565 near the beginning of Alabama 20 heading west toward Decatur. A November 2006 traffic study concluded that the average speed of westbound commuters is 74 mph, despite the speed-limit reduction to 60 mph in dry conditions and 50 mph during wet weather.
Taking control of a dangerous situation
Wrecks, deaths less prevalent on notorious stretch of Alabama 20
By Chris Paschenko
Zooming past three tiny crosses at interstate speeds, many commuters likely aren’t familiar with the stories behind the tragic traffic accidents on Alabama 20 East in Decatur.
The crosses represent only a third of the traffic fatalities there since 2002.
The question, when posed by first responders, is not if but when the next call will come. Who among the 36,000 daily commuters between Interstate 65 and U.S. 31 will be next?
If 2006 serves as harbinger, then Decatur’s deadliest two-mile stretch of highway could see a reprieve for the first time in six years.
The number of wrecks, injuries and fatalities dropped by 50 percent or more from 2005, and officials give credit to additional safety measures.
Lower speed limits, traffic signs and increased patrols have, at least for now, succeeded. Signs warn commuters leaving Huntsville and entering Decatur that the controlled access of Interstate 565 ends just west of the Decatur city limit sign under the I-65 bridge.
A November 2006 traffic study concluded that the average speed of westbound commuters is 74 mph, despite the speed-limit reduction to 60 mph in dry conditions and 50 mph during wet weather.
“The speeds there are so fast there’s either a fatality or very critical injuries involved,” said Decatur Police Chief Joel Gilliam. “But it’s my understanding a development company has put up money for developing shopping centers, homes, and a senior living complex.”
Site preparation along the divided, four-lane highway is already under way for a 3,000-seat sanctuary at Calvary Assembly of God Church. Decatur has also rezoned land east of the church site to encourage development along the corridor.
“There are two issues,” Gilliam said. “They don’t want to put traffic lights out there, which would slow down the movement of big trucks. The other is an overpass, but where do you put it and how does it fit into upgrades of the road?”
Crosses representing traffic fatalities on Decatur’s most dangerous stretch of road are back-dropped by the RaceTrac gas station and the lights of a tractor-trailer in this time-exposure.
Department of Transportation officials plan to extend I-565 to U.S. 31, but the project is years from fruition. Meanwhile, patrons of two convenience stores and a restaurant continue to cross the highway through medians wide enough to accommodate one car.
“I don’t know if they understand what’s going to happen when they move another 3,000 to 4,000 families into this area as a result of the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure,” Gilliam said. “That, along with normal growth, and we could see a critical escalation of accidents out there, and that concerns this police department.”
Lt. Mike Woods, head of Decatur Police Traffic Unit, said he’s pleased with the downswing.
“Last year (2005) there were four fatalities, but this year (2006) it was only two,” Woods said.
“And with all due respect, it was a double fatality (single-vehicle) wreck where speed and reckless driving were involved. It wasn’t like someone pulled out in front of him. It kind of marred the statistics slightly. It could have happened anywhere, not just on Alabama 20.”
Woods said he believes the number of wrecks with injuries are also down for 2006, but he has yet to calculate the data.
He said he doesn’t mind discussing the dangers associated with the troubled highway because it’s another opportunity to warn commuters to watch their speed.
“If one vehicle travels at 60 mph and another is doing 80 mph, they’re only saving 20 seconds over the two-mile stretch,” Woods said. “I don’t think it occurs to them that they’re only saving 20 seconds and endangering lives. They don’t realize they’re not saving a tremendous amount of time.”
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