Fatal crashes on highway give rise to safety reminders
By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
In the wake of two fatalities on the Laconia Bypass within a week's time, police reminded motorists to exercise caution and practice defensive driving on the 5.5-mile-long north-south highway.
Two people died in separate crashes, the first from a collision between a Chevrolet Cobalt and a dump truck shortly after 2 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12, which claimed the life of Arline L. Downing, 88, of Laconia; and the second in a two-car collision on Wednesday evening, Jan. 18, in which Bree Robinson, 33, of Meredith, sustained fatal injuries after her Honda Civic was T-boned on its passenger side by a 2004 Toyota Land Cruiser.
Laconia Police Capt. Matt Canfield reported that a preliminary investigation indicated that Downing, driving southbound toward Belmont, was straddling the fog line at the edge of the northbound lane and entered the path of a 1989 Ford dump truck traveling northbound toward Gilford.
Gilford police and fire officials reported that Robinson, the victim of the second crash, apparently lost control of her Honda Civic and traveled into the northbound lane where her car was struck on its passenger side by the Land Cruiser.
Gilford Police Lt. Kris Kelley said he can't remember a stretch of time when so many fatalities occurred on the bypass in such a short period. He counted four fatalities since last summer, when counting crashes on the Gilford and Laconia legs of the Route 11 connector road. In late June 2016, a motorcyclist was killed in a collision on the bypass; and last October, a Belmont man died when his vehicle plunged off the northern end of the highway.
Crashes tend to result in severe injuries or death, due to speeds involved and the frequency of head-on collisions, officials noted.
"On the bypass, it's not uncommon for vehicles to be traveling 60 mph or more, so the accidents tend to be more severe," said Laconia Police Chief Christopher Adams.
"When you're driving, whether it's on the bypass or any other road, take special precautions," Adams said.
Both recent crashes remain under investigation, but Adams said most motor vehicle accidents involve a range of outside factors, such as weather, driver inattention or road conditions.
The bypass itself, a limited-access highway linking Belmont to Gilford, has its pros and cons from a safety standpoint.
"There's a pretty good line of sight, and it's pretty straight in most parts of it," Adams said.
Yet, with its long straightaways, the bypass also tempts drivers to speed, and its long slopes and staggered passing lanes invite drivers to try passing in high-speed corridors, while a handful of on-ramps and off-ramps require drivers to merge.
Kelley said, "Anytime you have a not-physically-divided, high-speed roadway, it's obviously a roadway where you have to exercise caution."
With no median and no barriers on the center line, the bypass and similar roads can be unforgiving of driver mistakes, he said.
"Defensive driving is an absolute must on those roadways," Kelley said.
Ironically, a state contractor last summer repaved most of the bypass and incorporated changes aimed at making the road safer.
"In the parts where it's just one lane each side, there were a few yellow dotted passing zones, and we actually got rid of all of those with the paving job we did last summer," said Levi Byers with the construction bureau of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.
The $2 million project eliminated dotted yellow lines indicating that it's safe to pass, Byers said. The "pavement preservation" job also involved updating guardrails, replacing wooden posts with steel. The job encompassed all but less than a mile from the Route 106 overpass to the Route 107 underpass, which will be tackled under a different project that will rehabilitate these bridges, he said.
Bill Boynton, public information office for the NHDOT, said a grouping of crashes on certain roads can prompt safety audits, but that no such process had been called for with the bypass. Officials first need to ascertain the factors leading to the recent fatal collisions, a process which takes time.
"Every day we're working to make the highways as safe as possible, but the investigations into how or why something happens may take weeks," he said.