ALPENA - Imagine you are at the exit on M-32 that comes out of Walmart. It's where your head swivels both ways before you attempt to make a left turn across four lanes of traffic and head back to town.
After a few minutes, it seems as if traffic in both directions will never clear, and you start thinking about options. Maybe you could wiggle your way through the Walmart parking lot, and catch the light to the west at The Home Depot exit.
Then that option evaporates. There's now a line of cars behind you, and one guy's tooting his horn.
News Photo by Betsy Lehndorff
Traffic moves along on M-32 West in front of Walmart.
Many motorists face this dilemma daily, because the 1,100-foot stretch of highway west from Bagley Road to the stop light at Home Depot is the busiest in town. More than 20,000 cars and trucks use that road daily, with peak travel from 1-5 p.m.
Between April 2008 and April of this year, 157 automobile accidents have been reported on this stretch, officials said. About 57 percent of them occur at the four-way intersection, and usually are fender benders. But others are more serious, such as a three-car collision that sent four people to the hospital June 20.
Making M-32 less accident prone requires a clear understanding of data and traffic engineering. It also involves behavior modification, courtesy of your local law enforcement officer.
"The road is engineered properly," Doug Wilson, manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation's service center in Alpena, said. "We would like drivers to be more aware of their surroundings and pay attention. It doesn't matter if you are in front of Walmart or anywhere else. If you paid more attention, crashes would go down."
Yet, daily living is a distraction all its own.
"People are in huge hurries these days," Michigan State Police Sgt. Gale Owen said, referring to demands on busy motorists who can be juggling families and multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Speed also is a factor.
"The speed limit is 45 and cars are closing on you faster than you think," Owen said.
Many of the most serious accidents are caused by the failure to yield the right of way, he said. Another issue is improper lane use, Lt. Mike Hahn, MSP Alpena Post commander, said.
"They shouldn't use the center lane to merge into the flow of traffic," Hahn said. "Motorists are incorrectly using the left-hand turn lane as a holding zone. They're waiting for an opening so that they can make a right-hand merge into the flow of traffic.
During the June 20 accident, a woman pulled out of the Walmart driveway, the troopers said. She was unable to yield to heavy, oncoming traffic at around 3:30 p.m. and collided with a westbound pickup truck. That truck then crossed the rest of the highway and collided almost head on with an SUV.
Stephen Conradson, MDOT traffic and safety engineer, has studied traffic issues for years and is familiar with the corridor.
"There haven't been any fatalities, but there has been lots of drama," he said. "Most drivers want to get from Point A to B and not be involved in a crash."
Up until 1995, M-32 was a rural highway, he said. Then Walmart decided to locate in Alpena, and the retailing giant was asked to pay for highway improvements as a condition for receiving permits. A road through the back of the property was proposed, but never built, Conradson said. But other improvements were made, including widening the highway, marking it with five lanes and improving driveway access points to make them easier to negotiate in a car.
In the stretch of M-32 where accidents occur, there are now at least 20 separate driveway entrances and exits.
"Every driveway is a conflict point," Conradson said. "Drivers have to react to the traffic from each driveway."
During recent improvements to the corridor, MDOT installed high-tech pavement, which contains polymers that improve tire traction, even in bad weather, he said. New, highly reflective striping was also installed in shallow recesses so that it can't be scraped up by snow plows. But the project may have run out of money before turn arrows in the center turn lane could be laid down at a cost of about $100 to $150 each, he said.
The faded parking lot stripes and markings at entrances and exits on private property also could be posing some problems. If they were repainted, Conradson said, it might help. Typically, they last a winter, and it is up to the businesses to make sure they are maintained.
Before improvements, including stepped-up law enforcement can be done, officials from both agencies must develop a baseline of sophisticated data, and want to go back at least two years.
Hahn said MDOT and MSP first need to know what present conditions are, based on a high-tech computer analysis of metrics. Those figures are produced by a method called Data Driven Approach to Crime and Traffic Safety. Authorities also need to analyze data from another program called Dash Board, he said.
Once the data identifies where the biggest problem areas are, police will be out. With more than 20 troopers on the force, they could be looking for speeders, inattentive drivers, people who make illegal turns or fail to yield properly to oncoming traffic, Hahn said.
Then the MSP will step back to gather more data, and do a comparison to see if enforcement was effective, he said.
"If we can eliminate some of these bad driving behaviors, then we can make it safer for everybody," Hahn said.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.