Route 9 concerns go back many years
BRATTLEBORO — On average, more than 12,000 vehicles travel Route 9 each day between Keene, N.H., and the Vermont state line, according to data collected in 2015 by the Southwest Region Planning Commission and the N.H. Department of Transportation.
"With the most direct access to Interstate 91, the volume of 12,075 cars per day on Route 9 near the Vermont line represents the largest traffic volume entering and leaving the Southwest region," states the Chesterfield Master Plan.
With all that traffic, it's just a statistical probability that there will be accidents, and some of them serious, along Route 9. This year, through Dec. 11, Southwestern New Hampshire Fire Mutual Aid has dispatched emergency responders to 31 motor vehicle accidents along that 10.62-mile stretch, according to data assembled by Fire Mutual Aid Deputy Chief Tom Redin. Of those 31, 10 resulted in trips to the hospital, with three resulting in serious injuries. One accident this year, in August on Stoddard Hill, claimed the life of a newly married Brattleboro Union High School graduate.
According to a road safety audit conducted by the Department of Transportation, the five primary issues related to accidents along Route 9 are: limited sight distance; driver distraction and inattention due to mobile devices; "rolling stops," particularly from the right-turn lanes on northbound and southbound Route 63; "driver frustration and impatience when traffic on NH 9 is steady and there are relatively few acceptable gaps"; and following too closely and inappropriate passing and lane use, such as using the left-turn lane as a passing lane when vehicles in front are turning right.
Speed combined with distraction are the two most common factors in accidents on Route 9.
"The roadway hasn't changed since upgrades were done in the 1980s," said Jon McKeon, chairman of Chesterfield's Board of Selectman. "What's changed is the drivers and their behaviors. Distractions aren't solely on Route 9. They are on every road."
"We don't have an interstate highway, so people tend to travel at a pretty good pace," said J.B. Mack, executive director of Southwest Region Planning commission. Recent studies show the average speed on Route 9, which has a 50-mph speed limit in much of Chesterfield, is between 54 and 59 mph.
Approximately 45 percent of the accidents in Chesterfield occur on Route 9, according to data collected by the state in 2013. Of particular concern for the town and the state is the intersection of Route 63 and Route 9. Between 2003 and 2013, 31 accidents were reported there.
Drivers will see a new safety feature next year at the intersection of Route 63 and Route 9 - an intersection conflict warning system to let drivers on Route 9 know that a vehicle is waiting on Route 63 to enter or cross traffic.
ICWSs employ vehicle detectors to alert motorists of conflicting vehicles on an adjacent approach and are used at intersections with limited sight distance and/or intersections with a history of crashes involving gap acceptance problems.
"I don't know if that will be enough," said McKeon, who added he was concerned about placement of the warning system, especially for eastbound traffic. "They want to put it over the crest of the hill," he said. "We want that light at the top of the hill so drivers are warned before the crest."
The board has asked about a rotary at 63 and 9, said McKeon, but the state has said that could cause accidents, especially from the west if drivers can't see the slowed traffic because of the crest of the hill.
"You don't want to cause more accidents when trying to engineer a solution," said Mack. "And there is only so much you can do with engineering solutions when between 90 and 95 percent of accidents are due to driver behavior."
The No. 1 way to keep people focused on their driving is a visible police presence on Route 9, said McKeon.
"In our experience, the more police presence there is, the more attentive people are to their speed," he said.
However, said Chesterfield Police Chief Duane Chickering, police agencies around the region and the country are struggling to fill vacancies.
"It's hard to find new people who want to get into law enforcement, especially if they can make more money somewhere else without the worries," he said.
Chickering said there would be more of a police presence on Route 9 if more officers were available.
"We work very closely with the State Police and the sheriff to enforce the speeding laws," he said. "They are doing their best to assist us, but they have other duties."
Even though Route 9 is a state highway, it's up to the town of Chesterfield to patrol it. Other than an annual highway block grant that is disbursed to municipalities based on factors such as population and number of miles of state road, the town doesn't receive additional funding for conducting patrols on the road.
"We don't get extra money for having one of the main east-west corridors in the state," said McKeon. "It's not a shared responsibility with the state. The better we do, the more the state stays away."
In 2018, Chesterfield received $155,476 from the state. By comparison, Keene received nearly $500,000, Walpole received close to $145,000 and Hinsdale got nearly $100,000.
McKeon said town representatives continue to have conversations with state officials about their concerns related to Route 9.
"We've spoken about a lot of things with the state," said McKeon. "But we haven't gotten very far. They listen a bit, but they are not swayed easily."
The state of New Hampshire doesn't keep a database of the state's most dangerous roads; however, analyses done by several different organizations have pinpointed the most dangerous intersections in the Granite State, none in Cheshire County.
In 2016, state-wide traffic fatalities increased to 136 following a historical low of 90 in 2011, according to a document issued by the New Hampshire Office of Highway Safety.
John Clegg, program manager at the New Hampshire Office of Highway Safety, said that statewide, 70 percent of the people who died in car crashes in 2016 were not using seat belts at the time. New Hampshire is the only state in the nation that doesn't require adults to wear seat belts. The state requires that only those under the age of 18, whether drivers or passengers, use seat belts.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or email@example.com.
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