Like many other highways in Kansas, only grass separates the traffic that speeds in opposite directions on U.S. 69 near 143rd Street in Overland Park.
Just before 6 a.m. Monday, an SUV driven by a 29-year-old Overland Park woman crossed that median, struck two pickup trucks in the northbound lanes, overturned and came to rest in a ditch.
Heidi Lynn Adams and her 9-year-old daughter, Imogin Grace Adams, died. Two other daughters in the vehicle were taken to a hospital: 4-year-old Alannah Adams was in fair condition and 7-year-old Kyla Adams was in good condition.
Jess French, a neighbor of Adams, said the crash took the lives of a mother and daughter who seemed like they had rich lives ahead of them.
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“She was one of the first people that showed me a kind smile,” said French, who said Adams welcomed him when he moved in two months ago.
It also added to the question over whether highways like U.S. 69 and other busy roads in Kansas should have barriers installed that could help prevent such accidents.
Spurred by accidents on Kansas 10 between Johnson County and Lawrence, officials already were re-examining the state’s policy on which stretches of highway should get cable barriers.
Earlier this month, the state announced that it would install two, two-mile stretches of cable on Kansas 10.
The state is looking for hotspots where a higher-than-average number of fatalities might warrant the installation of cables as a safety precaution. Officials expect to conclude that process by the end of the year.
“At that time, highways in the Kansas City area will be the first to be evaluated for possible safety improvements,” the Kansas Department of Transportation said in a statement Monday afternoon.
The department also issued a statement expressing sympathy to the families and friends of those who were killed or injured in Monday’s accident. The drivers of the two trucks were also taken to hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries.
But while the stretch of U.S. 69 where the accident occurred previously had 215 accidents and 57 injuries over a five-year period, none of them were fatal. Officials were still checking Monday to see how many of the accidents between 135th and 151st streets involved vehicles crossing the median.
Median barriers can prevent some accidents from becoming fatalities. Missouri credits them with saving an estimated 45 lives a year.
But Dean Sicking, a traffic specialist at the University of Nebraska who is working with KDOT, cautioned again Monday that cables are not the best approach for all sections of divided highway. In some cases they can reduce a driver’s chances of regaining control of the vehicle.
“Cable barriers are a hazard themselves,” Sicking said Monday. “Cables cut roofs off of cars and you know what happens to the occupants. If KDOT put cable on every stretch of highway more people would die.”
The part of U.S. 69 where Adams died has a 60-foot-wide median and the highway has an average volume of 48,740 vehicles a day. From 2006 to 2010 the stretch between 135th and 151st streets had an overall accident rate of 1.198 per million miles of vehicle travel. That is only slightly higher than the statewide rate for similar roadways, which is 1.184 per million miles of travel.
KDOT conducted a review a few years ago that led to the installation of cable barriers on a section of U.S. 75 north of Topeka and of Kansas 96 near Wichita. Officials determined at that time that cables were not warranted elsewhere, including on Interstate 435, Kansas 10 or U.S. 69.
But KDOT officials agreed to take another look at that policy after a crossover accident last spring on K-10 killed two people. That followed 17 fatal crashes from 2000 to 2010 on Kansas 10, including seven crossovers.
While the previous study looked at statistical averages and factors such as median width and traffic volume, the new review will also factor in crash reports for specific stretches of highway.
“The work is going on,” KDOT spokeswoman Kimberley Qualls said Monday. “There’s tens of thousands of traffic reports being combed through.”
Qualls said that data will be used to see if the cable barrier policy should be refined or updated. Sicking will be a consultant on that work.
The absence of crossover fatalities in recent years on U.S. 69 — until Monday — may mean that highway still won’t meet the test for cable barriers.
Missouri has cable barriers on more than 600 miles of divided highway.
This past construction season the state added 11.3 miles of cable on U.S. 169 in Clay County from 68th Street to Smithville, 31.5 miles of cable on U.S. 71 from 63rd Street in Jackson County to Missouri 7 in Cass County, and on 1.5 miles of U.S. 50 at Interstate 470 in Jackson County.
Kristy Hill Wegner, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said those decisions were made by safety engineers based on a number of factors, including crash and fatality rates.