February 26, 2012

Lawmakers: Safety corridor for Kellogg would save lives

It could cost you a lot to get caught speeding on Kellogg if the freeway is declared a safety corridor.

It could cost you a lot to get caught speeding on Kellogg if the freeway is declared a safety corridor.

But supporters of the proposal say that without the change, it could cost you your life.

Last week, the state Senate narrowly passed a bill that would create a state safety corridor fund and clear the way for municipalities and the state transportation secretary to increase penalties on particularly dangerous stretches of road — and use the extra money to promoting safer driving.

If the House goes along with the Senate and the governor signs the bill, the first two candidates for safety corridor designation would be the Kellogg freeway that bisects Wichita, and K-10 between Lawrence and Lenexa.

From the motorist’s point of view, here’s what that would mean:

•  Fines for moving violations would be doubled.
•  Speeding violations more than 5 mph — instead of the current 10 mph — would go onto a driver’s license record and insurance, in many cases leading to higher insurance bills.
•  Tickets for violations committed in the safety corridor would be ineligible for diversion – a program that allows drivers to get a ticket dismissed if they pay a fee and keep a clean driving record for six months.

The bill has strong support from Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, a longtime Wichita car dealer and a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Donovan said he remembers how hard it was to get across Wichita in the early 1980s, when Kellogg was a four-lane boulevard with 40 mph speed limits and stop lights at major intersections.

He said the freeway, six lanes and nonstop, is a huge improvement. And the 60 mph speed limit is fast enough to get across town in a reasonable period of time, he said.

“For some reason, Kellogg seems to attract people who are inclined to go really fast,” Donovan said. “We need to slow it down. We’re killing people.”

The push for safety corridors grew out of an April accident on K-10, where a driver lost control, crossed the open median and hit a minivan, killing himself and 5-year-old Cainan Shutt of Eudora.

The accident was eerily similar to a Wichita crash last February, when a pickup jumped the median wall and hit another car, killing 5-year-old girl Amber Randolph of Clearwater.

A jury failed to reach a verdict in the December trial of Matthew Noel, the driver of the truck that jumped the median. A separate jury in January found Ronald Bevan, who prosecutors allege was racing Noel, guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Danger zone

It’s not difficult to make a case that there’s a speeding problem on Kellogg and that it’s a dangerous stretch of road.

In testimony to the Senate Transportation Committee, Wichita police Capt. Rusty Leeds reported that there had been more than 4,500 crashes on Kellogg from 2007 to 2011. About one-fourth of those resulted in injuries or deaths, he said.

During that period, police wrote 62,000 tickets on Kellogg, he said.

“A comparison of other areas of Wichita where traffic collisions occur shows that, by far, U.S. 54 leads the rest of the city,” Leeds testified. “Through the doubling of moving violation fines, signage, aggressive enforcement and education, the Kellogg Traffic Safety Corridor will help reduce the number of citizens who are killed or injured each year on what has become one of Wichita’s most dangerous commuter routes.”

State transportation engineer Jerry Younger testified that safety corridors have enhanced safety for the 13 states that have them.

He cited a study by the University of Missouri-Columbia Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering that found safety corridors in New Jersey and Virginia had reduced crash rates by 3 and 11 percent respectively. Over a five-year period, accidents dropped 42.3 percent in safety corridors in New Mexico.

Wichita has gone well out of its way to assure the public that its goal is a safer freeway, not more revenue.

In fact, city lobbyist Dale Goter said Wichita is likely to lose money overall.

In 2011, police wrote just short of 11,000 tickets on Kellogg, generating $1.7 million in fines and costs — plus an additional $236,000 on DUI and speeding diversion fees.

The diversion fees will go away and the extra income from doubling fines will go directly to the state for a fund that can be spent only on measures to make Kellogg safer, such as law enforcement, education and warning signs, Goter said.

“We don’t get any of it,” Goter said. The city doesn’t want to share in the extra fine money “to take away any perception that this is a revenue thing.”

Ideally, drivers will slow down and the number of tickets written will drop dramatically, as has happened in other cities that have adopted safety corridors, Goter said.

That too would cause the city to lose money, but “we want people to slow down so we don’t have all these horrible accidents like the one we just went through” in the Amber Randolph case, he said.

Public divided

So what are Wichita drivers saying about it?

Mike Erickson said the best thing the state and city can do for safety is to rework the interchange at I-235, where the ramps are too short for motorists to merge in and out of traffic smoothly.

“That’s always been dangerous since I’ve been here since ’89,” he said.

But he agrees with Donovan that 60 mph is fast enough on Kellogg and thinks higher fines might make speeders think twice.

“I learned a long time ago that going 70 (as opposed to 60) doesn’t get you there any more than a couple of minutes faster.” Erickson said. “People shouldn’t be in that much of a hurry.”

Javier Garcia said he thinks doubling fines on Kellogg is “not right.”

“The fines are high enough already,” he said. “You’re going to get a $300 ticket instead of a $150 ticket. A lot of the people don’t have that kind of money to get a ticket.”

He said if the city wants to do something for safety, it could start with the access roads downtown, where he said he regularly sees T-bone accidents.

Liz Unruh said she drives Kellogg all the time and is frustrated to see “a lot of people going 80-90 mph.”

She said she doesn’t have a strong objection to raising the fines.

“As long as it’s not me who gets caught, I guess I’m OK with it,” she said, smiling.

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