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River Road not safe enough, citizens say

Newly posted signs ask drivers to slow down while driving South River Road. Donated photo Newly posted signs ask drivers to slow down while driving South River Road. Donated photo

A group of residents living along South River Road in Jackson County say they’ve noticed an uptick in the number of speeders and commercial vehicles along the rural two-lane, and they’re asking the N.C. Department of Transportation to do something about it. 

“We want either restrictions or alterations to the road to accommodate how it’s being used,” said Pam Krauss, one of the leaders of Citizens for River Road Safety. “Leave it like it is and make some restrictions, or alter it in some way that it can safety accommodate the change.”

Krauss and her husband Eric Myers, who is also involved in the effort, say they noticed a big change in the volume of commercial traffic this May, especially regarding dump trucks. They’re guessing it’s related to construction beginning on a parking deck at Western Carolina University and to DOT projects along N.C. 107. 

“It has become the shortcut of choice between 107 and 441, both for commercial and for commuters,” said resident Jenifer Montsinger, who addressed Jackson County Commissioners about the issue July 16 along with Krauss and Myers. “We’re faced daily with speeders, drivers crossing the yellow line both deliberately and otherwise.”

In addition to increased construction traffic, said Myers, the road has seen a steady increase in use due to marketing of the stretch as prime access for recreational fishing. Improved safety measures are needed on North and South River Roads, he said. 

To underscore those subjective observations, the group gathered data on speed and vehicle type of traffic traveling South River Road. Each of the five observations was based on one hour of data from varying times of day, collected from either the 1100 or the 900 block of South River. Results showed between 42 and 93 vehicles traveling the road within an hour, with between 3.5 and 19 percent of those vehicles traveling more than 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour, and between 11.9 and 30.1 percent traveling six to 10 over. A pair of observations made July 11 showed the high volume of commercial vehicles, with 33 dump trucks and 10 commercial vehicles counted between 1 and 2 p.m. and 26 dump trucks and four commercial vehicles between 3 and 4 p.m.

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Solutions, the residents said, could include a reduced speed limit, restrictions on the sizes of vehicles traveling the road and improvements to the road itself, such as wider shoulders. 

During the July 16 commissioners’ meeting, Krauss shared one of her personal experiences involving unsafe conditions on South River Road. 

“I faced an oncoming vehicle that was tucked close behind a slow dump truck and attempted to pass in the oncoming lane, where I fortunately was driving well below the speed limit,” Krauss told commissioners. “We came face-to-face. Lots of swerving occurred, avoiding a very close head-on. That’s just one person. We all have the same stories.”

Citizens for River Road Safety has been putting up signs asking drivers to slow down and has also been circulating a petition, which currently has about 100 signatures, asking for improved safety measures on the road. Members have a meeting to discuss the issue with DOT Division Engineer Brian Burch slated for July 25. Burch said he looks forward to hearing their concerns and seeing what new information the group may have to bring to the DOT’s attention. 

Burch said the DOT recently completed a speed study on the road, and while he has not yet had a chance to examine the results he did take a preliminary look at the road last week and didn’t see any glaring issues.

“I felt comfortable driving the speed limit,” he said. “I go out there quite often and I do see typically dump trucks hauling stone or materials to the Cullowhee area, and so I see a lot of those trucks. But as long as they’re hauling a legal load they have the right to be on that road. The pavement structure is adequate. I don’t see anything that’s breaking down there and the shoulders were in good shape.”

It is possible to enact ordinances allowing light traffic only on particular roads, but Burch said he doesn’t expect the road has the physical limitations that would warrant such an ordinance. In addition, it’s important to consider the unintended consequences of banning commercial traffic on a particular road. 

“You have to look at if you ordinance this road, what roads would trucks then be forced to use?” said Burch. “Some are acceptable. Some would not be.”

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