Analysis spotlights Westmoreland County's most accident-prone roads
Route 30 had more severe accidents than any other roadway in Westmoreland County over the past five years, according to PennDOT data.
Given the state highway's frequently heavy traffic and numerous uncontrolled intersections as it crosses the county east and west, that's not much of a surprise. Less obvious, a Tribune-Review analysis found, is the roadway with the second-highest count: State Route 981, which mostly transverses the county north and south.
Where it passes through business districts, accidents tend to congregate at intersections. But as 981 stretches past the Oasis Hotel Restaurant in Derry Township, accidents tend to cluster around bends in the road — such as one known locally as Truxal's Curve, just south of the restaurant.
"It always has been dangerous," said Renee Redemer, who has worked at Oasis for 33 years.
Urban, rural factor
From 2012 through 2016, Allegheny and Westmoreland counties combined had 78,579 reportable accidents — ones with either an injury or where a vehicle had to be towed. Of those, 2,115 — or less than 3 percent — resulted in a fatality or serious injury.
Roads with the most accidents don't always turn out to be the ones with the most severe accidents.
The stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that passes through Westmoreland County, for example, had the second-highest number of accidents (805) yet tied for ninth in severe crashes.
With 1,960 accidents and 55 severe accidents in the five-year period, Route 30 had the highest count in both categories. Route 981 ranked sixth in total accidents (555) but second in severe accidents (30).
"I think you would find that to be a consistent pattern nationally," said Russ Rader, senior vice president for communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Interstates and other controlled-access roads tend to be the safest roads while rural, two-lane roads are among the most dangerous, he said.
Two-lane roads carry the risk of a vehicle crossing the center line and hitting another vehicle traveling in the opposite direction.
"Head-on crashes tend to be severe crashes and also the run-off-the-road crashes tend to be severe," he said.
Off-road accidents often are severe because vehicles tend to roll over and can strike stationary objects such as trees or utility poles.
"Half of the fatal crashes on all kinds of roads are single-vehicle crashes," Rader said. "Many of those are going to be alcohol-impaired crashes."
Rural two-lane roads tend to have higher speed limits than urban two-lane roads, which increases their hazard, he said.
For the past four decades, fatal crashes have been on a decline because of improved vehicle safety and states' enforcement of seat-belt laws and tougher drunken-driving limits, Rader said.
The improvements include cars designed to better protect people during crashes as well as technology that helps avoid crashes, he said.
The financial recession caused a larger dip in fatalities as people limited discretionary driving. The lowest figure was in 2011 with 32,479 deaths from 29,867 crashes.
With the economy recovering, people are taking more "long trips on unfamiliar roads" and fatalities have increased, he said. The latest figures, for 2015, counted 35,092 deaths from 32,166 crashes.
Road upgrades help
Road improvements also play a role in reducing crashes, Rader said.
PennDOT replaced a troublesome dogleg intersection on 981 in Unity near the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport with a roundabout. The agency believes it will improve traffic flow and safety by eliminating stop signs and the need for left turns.
The roundabout is part of a $13.8 million road safety project that includes adding a turning lane on another part of the road.
"It's probably going to cut down on the number of accidents," Unity Supervisor Mike O'Barto said.
The intersection between 30 and 981 had similar problems, but PennDOT upgraded it several years ago to include dual turning lanes and synchronized traffic signals and accidents decreased, he said.
PennDOT declined to comment on the Trib's analysis but did provide a list of projects for roads the newspaper identified as having the highest number of severe accidents.
Most of the projects involve resurfacing roads and improving bridges, but one is listed as a corridor safety improvement for the stretch of 981 between Mt. Pleasant and Norvelt.
On the northern end of 981, drivers are more of the problem than the road, said people who are familiar with that stretch.
"They're going too fast; they lose control on the curve," said Redemer of Oasis Hotel Restaurant.
Another curve just north of the restaurant also is a frequent accident spot for the same reason, said Rita Edge, the restaurant's owner.
Some motorists drive off the road. Others cross the centerline and collide with vehicles going the other direction. It's hard to tell which happens more often, Redemer said. At night, a third likely possibility is a car hitting a deer, she said.
"When I leave work at night, I'm always cautious," Edge said.
Mark A. Cerra, owner of MAC Towing, had the same appraisal of 981.
"Nine times out of 10, it's the S-bends," Cerra said.
Another trouble area is where 981 intersects with Industrial Boulevard, said Derry Township Supervisor Vincent DeCario. The road is poorly lit and has other problems, but he's unsure whether a fix is possible.
"There's not much room on either side of the road," he said. "I don't like driving it myself, I can tell you that. I stay away from it."
Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218, email@example.com or via Twitter @TribBrian.