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Accidents in 'Death Alley' fall

Injuries also down for stretch of 202/9

Death Alley isn't quite as dangerous these days.

The stretch of U.S. Route 202 and state Route 9 with the sinister nickname runs more than a dozen miles from Hillsboro through Henniker to Interstate 89 in Hopkinton and is notorious for serious accidents. Sixteen people were killed in crashes on the road from 2000 through 2009.

The state spent $6 million on safety measures there in 2006 and 2008, adding centerline and shoulder rumble strips, repaving the road surface and making other improvements.

The result: There were fewer accidents causing far fewer injuries on the highway last year than in 2005, the year before improvements began, according to a Monitor analysis of data from the state Department of Transportation.

There was a 28 percent drop in crashes and a 69 percent reduction in injuries on the highway from 2005 to 2009, according to the analysis. There was one fatality on the road last year, versus two in 2005.

Statewide, accidents were down 12 percent in the same period, and injuries were down nearly 24 percent. But the change on Death Alley is more dramatic and indicates that the rumble strips, criticized by some neighbors for producing noise, and other measures such as increased traffic enforcement have made the highway safer.

"I have witnessed, I know my department has witnessed, definitely a reduction in the seriousness of accidents and the overall number of them. . . . I don't think driver attitude has improved any, but I think people have become aware of when they're not in their lane anymore, and that's making a tremendous difference," said Tom French, chief of the Henniker Rescue Squad.

The Monitor's analysis was based on data provided by the Department of Transportation on accidents that resulted in death, injury or more than $1,000 in damage. Less serious accidents are not included. The analysis omits some reported crashes in Hopkinton and Hillsboro where it is unclear from the information if the accident occurred on the section of Route 202/9 from the Hillsboro split to Exit 5 of I-89 in Hopkinton.

 Earning its nickname

Route 202/9 is a major east-west road in central New Hampshire, part of a route stretching from the Seacoast through Concord to Vermont.

The two-lane highway was originally supposed to be one direction of a four-lane divided highway, according to Craig Green, assistant director of project development at the Department of Transportation. The other two lanes were never built, but the existing highway had been designed with higher design standards than a typical two-lane road, with long sightlines and few sharp turns or intersections.

As a result, motorists feel comfortable driving at high speeds on Route 202/9, Green said. An average of 12,000 vehicles travel the Hillsboro, Henniker and Hopkinton segment every day, he said.

"The road doesn't engage the driver, so they're able to not pay attention and, most of the time, get away with it," French said.

The road became known for serious, high-speed collisions, particularly head-on crashes as vehicles crossed the centerline. Earning the nickname "Death Alley," Route 202/9 is one of the state's "anecdotal trouble spots," said Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Boynton.

Around 2005, officials from the state and towns began talking about taking action, "not because of the number of crashes, but the severity and number of fatalities," Green said. That led to a study, presented in 2006, on possible improvements to make the road safer.

Work began that year and was completed with a second phase in 2008, using federal funds. The highway was repaved, first on a section in Hillsboro and Henniker, then on a stretch from Henniker to Hopkinton.

Rumble strips were cut into the roadway, both on shoulders and on the centerline. Shallower rumble strips were added to the Exit 5 ramp off I-89 to let drivers know they should slow from interstate speeds.

"People traveling on (Interstate) 89, if they're doing 65 (mph) and they come off the ramp there, we certainly don't want them doing 65 when they get to the section of 202 and 9," Green said.

Dedicated left-turn lanes were added in places. Roadside emergency signs were erected so 911 callers could more easily report the location of accidents.

The total bill was around $6 million.

"For years, we tried to get the state to do something, and they didn't. . . . And they tried something, and I'm very, very happy," said Rick Schaefer, Hopkinton's fire chief. "I believe it's worked. . . . The proof's in the pudding. There's been a dramatic decrease, and it's a wonderful thing."

 A safer highway

The difference from 2005, the year before the surface and other improvements began, to 2009, the year after the work was complete, is striking. There were 53 accidents causing 29 injuries and two deaths on the highway in 2005. In 2009, there were 38 accidents causing nine injuries and a single death, according to state data.

That's a 28 percent reduction in accidents and a 69 percent drop in injuries.

Death Alley isn't the only New Hampshire road that's become safer over the years. Statewide, there's been a 12 percent reduction in crashes and a 24 percent decrease in injuries over the same period. In 2005, there were 36,223 crashes in the state, causing 11,140 injuries and 170 deaths. Last year saw 31,907 crashes with 8,516 injuries and 110 fatalities.

Improved safety features in new vehicles, such as multiple airbags, as well as a nationwide decline in driving as the economy weakened, may help explain the decreases. Seatbelt use in New Hampshire has increased in recent years, from 63.5 percent in 2006 to 69.2 percent in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (The national average in 2008 was 83 percent.)

But the reduction in both crashes and injuries on Route 202/9 far outpaces the state average.

Stepped-up traffic enforcement on Route 202/9 has been a factor in improving safety, along with the road upgrades, said Henniker police Chief Ryan Murdough.

"I really think it's the combination of the increased enforcement and the improvements to the roadway that have made the difference," Murdough said.

Serious accidents still happen on Route 202/9. A high-speed collision last year in Henniker left a man dead, and Schaefer said a woman was killed earlier this year on the road in Hopkinton. There were two fatal crashes in 2008 - one in Henniker that killed Hopkinton police Officer Sean Powers, 24, and a collision in Hopkinton that killed 76-year-old Edith Dockham. Both 2008 crashes involved suspected intoxicated drivers, and both happened when rumble strips had been briefly removed during repaving.

Driver inattention and aggressive driving remain concerns for the police, along with intoxicated driving.

But local authorities said recent years have seen not only fewer accidents, but also far fewer severe crashes - anecdotal evidence backing up the data showing a sharper decrease in injuries than in accidents.

"We just don't see the serious crashes that we had out there," Murdough said.

 Raves for rumble strips

Local emergency responders said the rumble strips are among the most effective measures on Route 202/9.

The strips generate a loud noise when they come into contact with tires, alerting wandering drivers to stay in their lanes.

"I have personally witnessed many people hit the rumble strip in front of me and then instantly jerk their vehicle back into the lane of travel," said Hillsboro police Chief David Roarick. "So it kind of makes you wonder, if the rumble strip wasn't there where they would have gone."

But the rumble strips have provoked complaints from neighbors who say they can be too loud. Henniker resident Jennifer McCourt said centerline rumble strips in passing zones near Route 114 in Henniker are a particular annoyance.

"Route 114 in that area is an elevated highway within a valley, and the rumble strips in a passing zone, 2, 3, 4 o'clock in the morning, you hear 'bom bom bom bom,' " she said.

McCourt said her issue is that vehicles are allowed to pass over the rumble strips, not the strips themselves.

"The rumble strips are great," she said. "It's the passing zone that needs to be taken out."

Green and other officials said they recognize residents have concerns about noise. But they said the measures are worth it.

"I understand the noise and that type of thing, but saving people's lives, I think, is very important," Murdough said.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com)