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On Route 4 in Chichester, proceed with caution

  • Chichester police corporal Josh Wright is concerned about the amount of serious accidents on Route 4 in Chichester on Friday, May 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The onboard radar equipment shows speed of eastbound traffic on Route 4 in Chichester on Friday, May 3, 2109. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chichester police corporal Josh Wright stands near a memorial for a fatal accident on Route 4 in Chichester on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Chichester police corporal Josh Wright walks along the breakdown lane on the westbound side of Route 4 in Chichester on Friday, May 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chichester police corporal Josh Wright at the site of a recent accident on Route 4 in Chichester on Friday, May 3, 2019. A woman avoided serious injury or death because of the alertness of a truck driver in the opposite lane. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chichester police corporal Josh Wright heads out on patrol of Route 4 in Chichester on Friday, May 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chichester police Cpl. Josh Wright monitors the speed of passing cars on the eastbound lane of Route 4.

  • One of the vehicles involved in a head-on crash rests near the Hungry Buffalo on Route 4 in Chichester on May 23, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • A truck that veered off Route 4 in Chichester last year ran over a cross marking a 2011 crash. Courtesy Chichester police

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/11/2019 2:55:05 PM

In about two weeks, it will be exactly one year since Jonathon Drake, 36, died picking up his kids from school.

Normally, the father of two would have avoided Route 4, the roadway that rolls up and down like the back of a sea serpent, quietly peeking from the water. Drake knew about the merging lanes, the blind spots, the passing lanes masquerading as turning lanes, the highway-like speed limit centered in the core of a business and residential area, connecting Concord to the coast.

So Drake, when driving from Concord to his home in New Durham, preferred to use back roads, cutting through towns like Loudon and Gilmanton, adding time to his drive in the name of safety. This time, though, his children were waiting, and, as his widow, Stefanie King, said this week, “The back roads are 10 minutes longer, and 10 minutes can make a big difference when you’re picking up kids.”

Drake died in a three-car crash on May 23, 2018. The police report said Drake caused the accident by carelessly changing lanes. But King and others – business leaders, truck drivers, commuters, even the police – said the one-mile stretch in Chichester, from the Interstate 393 off-ramp near Super Shoes to the Epsom town line, is fertile ground for danger, a poorly engineered road that needs updating for safety’s sake.

This, it turns out, is a life and death issue, one that has claimed four lives since 2016. Drivers roll out of business parking lots and turn left, sometimes unable to see cars coming from beyond a hill.

They merge to the right after passing on a roadway that changes from two lanes back to one. They stop in that same “passing” lane to turn left, their blinkers meaning absolutely nothing to someone coming up from behind.

And, with a speed limit of 50 in some areas, 60 to 65 has become acceptable, meaning less time to digest the scene unfolding in front of them, time that if used properly could save a life.

“It’s our commercial and residential area, so the road has its own identity crisis,” said Chichester police Chief Patrick Clarke. “We understand it’s a major east-west road, but in my opinion, the way it’s designed, it’s not safe, and the numbers speak for themselves.”

Clarke said his department responds to at least one accident there every two to three weeks. King and Drake knew all about the well-known danger Route 4 poses.

They knew the history, the fatalities, the injuries, the jockeying for position like a video game as drivers race to pass and lead the way heading back to a single lane.

But Drake knew something his wife did not. He knew Chief Clarke had relayed concerns about Route 4 to the Department of Transportation two years before he died in that crash. So as the one-year anniversary approaches, King, who’s raising her two grade-school boys alone, is left to wonder what might have been if the DOT had acted.

“I found out about it afterward, about the effort Clarke had made,” King said. “Obviously he and I were frustrated. Once I learned he had been pushing DOT since 2016 to make it safer, obviously, it’s frustrating.”

Others have contacted the DOT, seeking change as well. Ron Wroblewski owns L&K Equipment, at 258 Dover Road, more commonly known as Route 4. He’s at the epicenter of the storm and has been for more than 20 years.

How bad is it near his business? How worried is he?

Worried to the point that the longtime businessman turns right out of his work driveway, not left. Not with a scrum of cars roaring toward him like competitors down the backstretch at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Wroblewski simply makes a U-turn to get home. It’s a heck of a lot safer.

“I don’t want to be the next one to die,” Wroblewski said. “This is the only spot that has a passing lane where you get to the top of the hill and you can’t see anything. On this stretch, people come up the road doing 65 to 70 miles per hour, and you get to the top of the hill and ‘Bang!’ ”

Wroblewksi said Route 4 near his business should have a turning lane, not a passing lane. The speed limit should drop to 40 mph. In fact, he even gathered 37 signatures on a petition he submitted to the DOT in February.

“These changes need to be made as soon as possible,” Wroblewski wrote, “to reduce the chance of more lives being lost.”

DOT Commissioner Victoria Sheehan was out of town and unavailable for comment. Mike Lambert, though, the traffic engineer, responded to Wroblewski’s letter, writing that a major change to this strip of road was completed in 1994 with the “reconstruction of the subject highway segment in Chichester. The project improved the horizontal and vertical alignment and added the eastbound passing, or truck climbing, lane.”

Tell that to King.

The letter also mentioned that data is being collected and will be turned over to the town of Chichester for consideration. “It is appropriate for us to consider all of the benefits and consequences of such a change,” it read.

To which Wroblewski said, “You have to consider the consequences, yeah, and in this case, the consequences are wasting lives.”

The Chichester police are frustrated as well. Chief Clarke and Cpl. Joshua Wright never minced words when asked if something needed to be done in their town. They also noted that it’s nearly impossible for them to turn around if they see a speeder moving in the opposite direction. Too dangerous.

“You have businesses, so cars are stopping in the high-speed lane to make a left-hand turn,” Clarke said. “And in doing so, someone who is not paying attention for one reason or another, maybe just daydreaming, isn’t expecting someone to be stopped and turning.”

Wright, a 15-year veteran on the force, drove to the danger zone, showing certain spots where wrecks have occurred and people have died. He pointed to the battleground of the latest serious crash, on April 24. There were muddy skid marks where the car, moving east, veered over the double yellow line for no apparent reason and smacked a tractor-trailer. There was bark from a tree, down an embankment, scattered on the ground after the car crashed there.

And there was a tractor-trailer driver named John Gagnon, a Pembroke resident who’s been a truck driver for 30 years. Clarke and Wright want to pin a medal on Gagnon’s chest. They say his instincts and experience saved the life of the other driver when he swerved to avoid ramming the car head-on.

“It would have been a fatal if not for that,” Wright said.

Reached by phone, Gagnon said, “My only thought was don’t hit her head to head, because she will definitely lose out. It’s a basic reaction. It’s the reaction of all truck drivers.”

Through the last two decades, Wright and Clarke have seen death close up. They had to inform family members that they’d lost a loved one.

In 2011, Amanda Michaud of Pittsfield and her 8-year-old son, Avery, were killed when Amanda mysteriously spun over the double yellow line driving east. A commercial van, coming from the other direction, T-boned Michaud’s car. Wright was off-duty at the time, relaxing at home when the call came in. He was needed at the crash site.

He speculated that Michaud reached into the backseat to retrieve a sippy cup and pulled on the wheel at that moment, causing her to veer into westbound traffic. A cross sits in the spot where mother and son died. The other day it was decorated with flowers, a rabbit and Spiderman.

“Things are placed there all year long,” Wright said. “It’s lit up for Christmas with lights.”

Last May, Drake’s car ended up resting on top of that cross. He had been hit by a water truck. His wife cried on the phone this week, desperate to get the word out about Route 4, while fighting to keep her voice steady.

She doesn’t care about the DOT’s current study. Neither do the local police. Or local merchants.

They have more than enough information, like the hike in Route 4 accidents, from 42 in 2015 to 68 in 2017, 63 last year. And four dead over the past three years.

King and Drake had been married for 10 years. He helped at-risk students stay in school. More than 500 people attended his funeral.

King now avoids Route 4 if at all possible.

“The DOT has a huge responsibility,” King said. “There’s a lot of data, and a lot of that data is not on paper and it doesn’t show up in statistics.

“Some data is just felt in the heart.”

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