In 2011, after a string of nasty crossover crashes and fatalities on Kansas 10, the state highway department agreed to increase traffic enforcement and put up four miles of cable median barriers in spots near Kansas 7 and Eudora.
Three years, three fatalities and 28 injuries later, some Johnson County commissioners are saying it wasn’t enough. A few of them are willing to explore the question of whether the county can bypass the Kansas Department of Transportation and put in more miles of cable barriers on its own.
Commissioners have for weeks expressed frustration about what they perceive as slow progress on improving the safety of the Kansas 10 corridor from Johnson County to Lawrence. That frustration has grown as it has become apparent that the cable barriers aren’t on the top of the list of recommendations in a report drawn up by a special committee of state highway, law enforcement, city and county officials along the corridor.
The recently finalized report puts the establishment of a Highway Safety Corridor — with increased fines and enforcement — as the top recommendation, along with increased educational efforts aimed at reducing speeds and inattentiveness.
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The committee also called for highway planners to study longer-range options, such as widening the highway or putting up concrete barriers.
A Highway Safety Corridor would have to be set up by the Kansas Legislature. Highway Safety Corridor bills were proposed in the 2012 and 2013 Legislatures but failed both times.
Commissioner Jim Allen has made the cable median barrier his cause. “This is one of the top issues in Johnson County right now,” he said.
Other states, such as Missouri and Florida, make extensive use of cable barriers along their medians, he said. “The majority of the states in America have addressed (crossover accident) problems with cabling,” he said.
The special committee of government officials met four times over the summer to address continuing concerns about the safety of the highway. Representatives from Overland Park, Olathe, De Soto, Eudora, Lawrence, Douglas and Johnson counties, the University of Kansas, Kansas Department of Transportation, Kansas Highway Patrol and a motorcycle advocacy group made and then ranked suggestions on how to make the corridor safer.
Most ranked the safety corridor legislation at the top. Johnson County and Olathe officials ranked some version of cable dividers at the top. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, which had separate representation, favored educational efforts and signage about driving safety.
Local officials have become more interested in safety on Kansas 10 of late because of continuing crossover accidents on that stretch of road. There have been 31 crossover accidents from 2012 through this year, according to the highway department’s figures.
In 14 of those, vehicles collided, resulting in 19 injuries and three deaths. The other 17 were accidents in which a vehicle crossed the median and did not strike another vehicle but may have struck a fixed object.
The state transportation department has maintained that the Kansas 10 corridor does not have enough traffic to meet its cost-benefit standards for cable barriers. According to the report, the stretch of the highway east of Kansas 7 may hit that threshold in the “near future,” however.
The report cited accident statistics that blame over half of all accidents along Kansas 10 on speeding and following too close. Driver inattentiveness was the cause of a significant portion as well.
But the report left questions as to how effective increased policing might be in the long run. During the late summer and early fall of this year, state highway officials went on a crackdown along the highway. The department of transportation set aside $40,000 to pay overtime to patrol officers for the effort, which ran from August through October.
During that time, officers wrote 1,045 tickets, including 777 for speeding. Of those speeding tickets, 122 were for driving 16 miles or more over the posted limit.
But the increased patrol presence had no measurable effect on driver behavior, according to the report.
Motorcyclists also have not been fans of the cable barriers.
“They call them cheese cutters,” said Brian Thompson, lobbyist for ABATE of Kansas, a motorcycle advocacy group. “When you run into them, you tend to get sliced like a piece of cheese.”
Motorcyclists generally prefer concrete barriers better, he said, but they cost much more.
The state relented a little on cable barriers in 2011, after a similar set of meetings with local governments. At the time, the transportation department agreed to install two miles of cable dividers at the intersection with Kansas 7 and another two miles near Eudora. Both those places were near the scenes of fatal accidents.
As it became apparent that more miles of cable barriers would not be recommended for Kansas 10, Johnson County commissioners have bemoaned the state’s “inertia.” They say they will ask for a meeting soon with state officials and will also look to the statehouse delegation to push a safety corridor bill through.
Failing that, though, some say they’d consider having the county take matters over by putting in its own barriers. Commissioners Jason Osterhaus and Allen have both wondered aloud about whether that move would be legally possible and how much it would cost.
“It’s a public safety issue,” said Osterhaus. “You can always replace a car but you can’t replace a human life.”
Commissioner Steve Klika agreed. “I want to know legally what we can and cannot do,” he said. “I just don’t want to roll over on this issue.”
“I’m in favor of anything that would save some lives,” Klika said. “I am really worried that it’s going to take another death and then everybody is going to be looking at each other and pointing fingers.”