Four accidents resulting in multiple injuries and one death have occurred on state Highway 133 in Washington County since Oct. 2.
Following the news of a Nov. 18 fatal accident, several residents commented on social media whether the transition of Highway 133 from two to four lanes had provided safer travel for drivers, whether speeds were too high and whether people were using proper highway driving habits.
Michael Ralph, 72, later died as a result of his injuries following the Nov. 18 accident. According to statistics provided by the Washington County Sheriff's Office, that accident is the first fatality accident since 2016.
The accident statistics provided by the sheriff's office span from 2009 to 2019. Construction to expand the highway from two to four lanes began in earnest in 2013 and lasted into the summer of 2017. Though there was a significant increase in the number of accidents reported in 2018, the first full year Highway 133's four lanes were in use, accidents in 2019 have dropped closer to pre-construction numbers.
Capt. Aaron Brensel said he thinks people are becoming acclimated to the switch to four lanes and a speed limit increase to 70 miles per hour in the summer of 2018.
"I would say 2018 is an abnormal number of accidents," he said. "Maybe the next two years will really tell the tale as to how people are acclimating to the increase in speed there for one thing, but also we don't have the fear or near the head-on collisions as to what caused the true personal injury or fatalities that we dread as we have two obvious northbound and southbound lanes each."
A head-on collision resulted in the deaths of two people in August 2012, a few months before construction to transition Highway 133 from two to four lanes began. Since 2009, five fatality accidents have occurred on the highway resulting in the deaths of seven people. Accidents in 2014 and 2016 occurred at the time construction on the highway was taking place. A 2009 accident and the 2016 accident were single vehicle crashes.
Brensel said the number and occurrence of fatality accidents on the highway in the county have been consistent before, during and after construction.
"We will have a fatality, go for a couple years and have a fatality," he said. "That's still been consistent of the last two years."
What has been inconsistent to varying degrees the last two years, according to the statistics, is the number of property damage, car-deer and personal injury accidents. The sheriff's office delineates its accident statistics between property damage, car-deer, personal injury and fatality accidents. Personal injury accidents are crashes where emergency crews are called and are nonfatal.
"We have a standing policy within our department: We call rescue whenever there's airbag deployment," Brensel said. "Now, whether they refuse treatment or not, that's another issue."
In 2018, 14 property damage accidents, seven car-deer accidents and two personal injury accidents occurred on Highway 133 in the county. In 2012, the last year before construction on the highway began, there were no property damage, car-deer and personal injury accidents. But 2012 was also the year of the head-on fatal collision.
In 2019, five property damage, 11 car-deer and five personal injury accidents have occurred in addition to the Nov. 18 fatal accident. No other year since 2009 has had more personal injury accidents, which have consistently been around one or two. The only year that had more than five property damage accidents was 2009, which had six, though there have been between zero to five in most years.
Car-deer accidents in 2018 and 2019 have been much higher than earlier in the decade. Brensel said an increase in deer, speed and traffic could be a factor in those types of accidents.
"We see the same thing on other highways and even on county roads we get car-deer," he said. "People that used to bypass coming Irvington to here, take (highway) 75 or take 31 in are now taking 133 just because it's quicker and generally wide open roads."
When it comes to speed, Brensel said an increase from 60 or 65 miles per hour to 70 miles per hour means faster closing speeds and slower reaction times. He said people may still be getting acclimated to the difference in closing speeds, which could play a factor in accidents as they attempted to turn onto or off of the highway.
"I implore people all the time, please compensate for that and know the closing speed on that vehicle as you're coming out onto the highway is going to be much faster," Brensel said. "Ten miles an hour faster .. .It's going to cause more damage than a vehicle going 60 or 65, whatever the speed limit may be."
Brensel said people should not try to "push it" to make it onto the highway, though he understands how people might misperceive how fast a car is moving.
"I've had people turn out in front of me in the exact same situation down just north of Lakeland and across the Kennard cut there," he said. "People will turn out and realize, 'Oh, that vehicle is coming faster than I thought,' and they'll really accelerate."
Brensel said getting to and then waiting in middle areas of medians for traffic to pass might be a good option for drivers attempting to turn left onto the highway.
"In my experience, it's actually worked out in benefit," he said.
Brensel also said an important aspect in highway driving safety is to obey road signs, such as "keep right except to pass." He said drivers staying in the left lane to drive rather than pass could contribute to accidents, though he's not seen that happen yet.
"That's not been an issue that I have seen based on reports that I've seen or what I see when I'm out patrolling," Brensel said. "At least, slower vehicles, please keep right and just observe the safety signs. Be aware of your surrounding and understand the left lane is for passing only and the sign says so."
One aspect of highway driving safety Brensel said he couldn't talk in depth about was how highway designs contribute to accidents or a driver's ability to see since they are engineering issues. The Pilot-Tribune was unable to reach officials with the Nebraska Department of Transportation before publication of this article.
"We do on our accident forms, they'll ask, 'Do you request an engineering study be done?'" Brensel said. "If we do think there's an issue, we can check that box or fill in that box."
As it stands, though accidents spiked in 2018, Brensel said it would be prudent to see if that trend continues over the next couple years and the sheriff's office will continually monitor where patrol is most needed. He said though some factors like speed can increase closing speed or increase accident damage, he feels that the highway is safer at four lanes than two.
"I feel that I have more reaction time, personally, I feel the visibility is good on 133," Brensel said. "I don't feel that I'm in danger driving the speed limit there. I don't see any consistent problem areas as long as the speed limits are observed and we're using due regard with turning."
Highway 133 accidents in Washington County (construction 2013 to summer 2017)
|Property damage (emergency not called)||Deer||Personal Injury (emergency called)||fatality|