Sherry Smith stood in the parking lot Friday of the pediatrics office she manages in the Golden Springs Shopping Center and talked about the children who go there every day.
“In the winter time it may be 180,” Smith said of the number of patients who visit the office, near the intersection of U.S. 431 and Choccolocco Road.
Chase Thomas, owner of Pediatrics Plus, said he worries that a change last week by the Alabama Department of Transportation could divert more vehicles into his parking lot and endanger young patients and their parents.
ALDOT on Thursday closed the left turn lane of Henry Road, preventing drivers from heading north on 431 from Henry Road. The move came after meetings between ALDOT and Anniston city officials following a fatal wreck July 7 at the U.S. 431 and Coleman Road intersection that killed 74-year-old Jimmy Goodwin. It was the latest of several wrecks along that stretch of the parkway.
Experts caution that road networks are complicated systems, and that engineers try to think carefully through any changes made for safety. But moments after ALDOT announced the change, people began commenting on social media, most expressing confusion or anger over the state agency’s decision. More than 100 comments piled up on The Star’s story within a few hours.
“I live right at this intersection, and trust me, this may only create more issues,” one commenter wrote beneath a Star story Wednesday on ALDOT’s decision to close the turn lane on Henry Road. “I'm afraid this will result in a lot of U-turns and increased craziness at the 431/Coleman Road intersection.”
“Finally something that makes sense. Good move. They do this all the time in other cities,” wrote another commenter.
Still another wrote that the only solution “is to build a 4 million dollar bridge at the intersection for cars and trucks to go over Coleman Rd. Add another million for on and off ramps. I need the work.”
Thomas, owner of the pediatrics office, said that he’s “scared to death” that a child or their parent will get hit in his parking lot by a driver who comes off Henry Road, then turns left into his lot to turn around and head north on the parkway.
“I don't think it was malicious. I just don’t think anyone thought about it,” Thomas said. “Nobody said ‘They have kids in wheelchairs in their parking lot.’”
Jeffrey LaMondia, an Auburn University associate professor of civil engineering who specializes in transportation, said by phone last week that road engineers design roads based on federal guidelines and careful studies of traffic patterns, but that “you can always go back and look to see if there are things you can improve.”
LaMondia said a single change on a roadway can “impact many other things,” and that engineers design roads to be safe and efficient, “so every decision we make on roadways to serve those two goals.”
“You don't want to rush in the and make a change that wasn't the right decision, and sometimes it takes a little bit of time to find out the best answer,” LaMondia said.
The fatal accident July 7 was the second such deadly truck crash on that section of U.S. 431 attributed to tractor trailer truck brake failure since December. On Dec. 23, 2016, Billy Ray Jones, 44, and Kimberly Ann Jones, 34, were killed when the couple’s car was struck by a truck as they tried to turn left from Coleman Road onto U.S. 431. The driver of the truck told police that his brakes failed.
Statewide crash statistics seem to show that the two fatal accidents in Anniston involving truck brake failure are not the norm.
David Brown, professor and research associate at the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, in a message to The Star last week wrote that about 60 percent of crashes involving trucks and other non-commercial vehicles are not the fault of truck drivers.
Of 1,963 crashes statewide from 2012 through 2016 there were 16 crashes caused by brake failure, Brown wrote, “and none of them resulted in a fatality.”
Thomas said he doesn’t see a clear solution to the problem of drivers who may use the parking lot of his pediatrics office to turn around and head north on the parkway. He worries that it might take “something bad happening in our parking lot” before action is taken.
LaMondia urged the public to be patient and let ALDOT continue to study the problem area to find the best possible solution.
“Roadways in general are evolving environments. You constantly have to evaluate,” LaMondia said. “Nothing is ever just done.”