By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: August 26, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.
Intersection change seeks to improve safety following fatal crashes
DINWIDDIE – The Virginia Department of Transportation is working to address questions surrounding their plans to reconfigure a busy county intersection following a series of significant crashes as crews prepare to begin construction of a new restricted crossing U-turn intersection along U.S. Route 460.
This new configuration seeks to address safety concerns raised by residents and commuters alike following a number of crashes at the intersection, including one earlier this year that claimed the life of Dinwiddie teenager Dakota Reid as he rode in a car that was attempting to cross New Cox Road when it was struck by a sedan traveling along U.S. Route 460. That crash killed Reid and injured four others.
According to traffic data, since 2014, that intersection has seen nearly a dozen crashes and three fatalities. With those numbers and the death of Reid fresh in their minds, Reid’s family along with a group of concerned residents approached VDOT about what could be done to make that intersection safer for everyone who utilizes it, especially young drivers who travel through that intersection to get to Dinwiddie High School.
It was at that time in early February when VDOT residency representatives Crystal Smith and Scott Thornton presented the concept for the restricted crossing U-turn intersection, which, according to the transportation agency, would reduce the number of “conflict points,” which are where traffic paths interact with one another, at that location. In its current form, as a standard, four-point crossing, the intersection has “a total of 32 conflict points, including 16 crossing conflict points,” while the version of the RCUT presented at that Winter 2019 meeting had “18 conflicts and two crossing conflicts.”
Following VDOT’s decision to utilize the intersection design at the location and the county’s re-affirming action supporting the addition of the project to their six-year secondary road plan, which used state safety dollars previously designated for an intersection improvement in northeastern Dinwiddie at U.S. Route 1 and Ritchie Avenue, questions have been raised regarding if this type of intersection is suitable for this location and if there are any other options that can be utilized, despite VDOT having relied reports from their traffic engineers in the spring that found no basis for a traffic signal or speed drop in the area.
“Following various traffic and safety evaluations, VDOT’s recommended solution to decrease crashes and improve operations is to convert the existing intersection into a modified restricted crossing U-turn,” VDOT’s communications representative Bethanie Glover detailed, explaining further, “An RCUT is an intersection design where all side street movements begin with a right turn. Side street vehicles making a left turn or traveling through will first turn right and make a U-turn at a dedicated downstream median. RCUTs are considered for median-divided highways or intersections with heavy through and/or left-turn traffic volumes on the major street, low through and left-turn traffic volumes on the side street.”
While the imagery provided by VDOT shows what a traditional restricted crossing U-turn, RCUT for short, looks like, officials confirm they will be implementing a “modified RCUT” at Courthouse Road and U.S. Route 460, which “will eliminate all left turn movements.” Signs will be posted at all approaches to guide drivers through the intersection. (Virginia Department of Transportation)
Acting VDOT Richmond District Deputy Administrator Smith and VDOT Richmond District Traffic Engineer Rob Vilak reiterated the agency’s past findings about the corridor, which has been deemed a speed drop not feasible as the majority of drivers traveling along that portion of New Cox Road during VDOT’s study were found to be traveling at roughly 67 miles per hour, seven above the posted speed limit of 60 m.p.h., meaning, if the speed limit were dropped, it could create disparities in traveling speed as drivers going that speed limit would mix with others who were traveling at the speed they felt was safe for the geometry of the roadway. In addition, none of the agency’s warrants for a traffic light were triggered during a spring study of the location.
“RCUTs are a preferred solution for rural, high-speed divided highways such as Route 460 where traffic signals would likely go unnoticed or ignored,” she detailed. “Instead of attempting to stop the flow of traffic on Route 460, Courthouse Rd. drivers can merge in and make a U-turn at a safer location.”
The agency further explained in their research, when looking at traditional fully signalized intersections – flashing lights are currently installed at the crossroads for safety reasons – the safety and operational benefits of an RCUT outweigh those of a traffic light-controlled intersection.
“RCUTs reduce the amount of angular crashes by 34 percent,” VDOT explained. “Any crashes that occur are more likely to be ‘sideswipes,’ which are less likely to result in major injuries or fatalities. Additionally, less complex decision making is required; drivers only need to assess traffic in one direction at a time to determine if there is an acceptable amount of room to enter the roadway.”
Regarding how the intersection will be designed, officials with the agency explained they are implementing a “modified” version of an RCUT, which will “prevent left-turns from Courthouse Road to U.S. Route 460,” which seeks to “reduce the amount and severity of angular crashes at the intersection.”
“The modified RCUT design was selected to preserve the free flow of traffic on Route 460 while reducing the complex decision making associated with crossing a divided highway,” Vilak said. “Drivers wanting to turn left will make a right turn followed by a U-turn at the designated median opening. Drivers will only need to assess the gaps in one direction of traffic at a time. This greatly reduces the chances of high-impact crashes.”
Glover and VDOT noted “education and advanced personal planning” will help drivers navigate the new intersection configuration, with the agency explaining, “Drivers utilizing the RCUT from Courthouse Rd. may notice a slight increase in their commute time, but will be far less likely to suffer major property damage, injuries or fatalities at the intersection. Additionally, the RCUT requires unusual maneuvers that some drivers may find uncomfortable.”
While all approaches to the intersection will feature guiding signage to aid drivers in traveling through the RCUT, VDOT said they are actively working with Dinwiddie County Public Schools to educate the high school’s driver’s education students about the new configuration. That confirmation comes after residents raised concerns about the impact of a new intersection on young drivers making their way to Dinwiddie High.
As the agency prepares to start work on the intersection, some have questioned if this kind of unique configuration has been implemented elsewhere in the Commonwealth. According to the agency, less than ten other RCUTs or variations thereof have been constructed in VDOT’s Culpeper, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Salem, and Staunton districts. State transportation data shows an RCUT is currently under construction along Route 10 at Old Bermuda Hundred Road in Chesterfield County, which is part of VDOT’s Richmond District.
Additionally, VDOT explained “numerous” RCUT intersections have been implemented in Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.”
“As of the publication of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)’s Restricted Crossing U-Turn Intersection Informational Guide in August 2014, Minnesota and North Carolina had implemented 11 and 14 RCUTs, respectively,” the transportation agency stated. “Remaining states had constructed less than ten by 2014.”
They continued, “Following evaluation of five RCUT intersections placed along high-speed routes in Missouri, results indicated that RCUT intersection installation reduced total reported crashes by an average of 35 percent, and crashes involving injuries were reduced by 54 percent,” adding, “No fatal crashes at the five RCUT intersection study sites were observed during the study period after installation [three years]. Similar results have been noted following RCUT implementation in other states.”
In February, County Administrator Kevin Massengill served as a moderator for a discussion between residents concerned about safety at the intersection of U.S. Route 460 and Courthouse Road and VDOT as they listened and offered solutions to make the location safety after a series of deadly crashes. (Michael Campbell)
On the same topic of implementation, others questioned if the RCUT is suitable for U.S. Route 460 given its speed limit of 60 miles per hour, with some suggesting that these types of intersections are usually constructed in locations with lower speed limits. When asked, VDOT said speed is “seriously considered” when looking at intersections and proposing innovative solutions.
“RCUT intersections are a preferred solution for high-speed corridors – 55 m.p.h. or higher – to maintain traffic flow and prevent left turn maneuvers which can result in serious crashes,” VDOT traffic engineers detailed. “However, they are applicable to roadways with any speed limit.”
Speaking to Dinwiddie specifically,” they continued, “By implementing the proposed modified RCUT, drivers will not need to make high-risk decisions by assessing both directions of traffic and will be able to merge into the existing flow of traffic before making a U-turn at a designated crossing. Crashes are less likely to be severe in nature and fewer points of conflict will be present.”
Officials had said in the lead-up to the summer they hoped to have the RCUT complete prior to the start of school come September 3 but, according to the agency last week, survey and design work is complete and work is expected to begin towards the end of the month, with implementation expected to take “approximately four weeks.”
Those with questions about RCUTs or other intersections can visit VDOT’s innovative intersections and interchanges portal at http://virginiadot.org/ or contact the Petersburg Residency office at 804-863-4000. Their customer service center is also available 24 hours a day at 1-800-367-7623 or https://my.vdot.virginia.gov.