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Rural intersection turns deadly, again and again

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No one will know how long before the next killing collision...

By MELODY JAMESON

RUSKIN — Once heard, seen, smelled, the tons of colliding metal powered by igniting fuel, twisting together, separating crazily, spilling shattered glass, personal possessions, vehicle fluids, human blood, broken bodies, leave imprints hard to erase.

Witnesses, as well as the drivers and passengers so intimately involved, take away recollections not easily buried. They can disturb sleep and deter work.

Just ask Aaron Cook and his family whose home for the last three years has overlooked a deadly intersection here. And it happened again last week where 30th Street crosses 21st Avenue S.E.

Cristy Jean Brock, just 41 years old, drew her last breath at about 7:30 Tuesday morning (May 8) in that intersection when her 1992 Chevrolet Camaro was struck on the driver’s side by a 2006 Chevrolet HHR driven by another Ruskin woman, Vician Bolan, 59, according to Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office reports.

Brock had approached 21st from the south on 30th and pulled into the intersection as Bolan endeavored to drive through it, eastbound on 21st. This time, neither driver was traveling at excessive speed, both under the posted 40 MPH speed limit, witnesses estimated.

The HHR, however, outweighed the Camaro by 1,000 pounds, and is higher as well as wider on a longer wheel base. Both General Motors products, the bulky SUV and the sporty Camaro have been subjects of several recalls for a variety of reasons, according to reputable automotive internet sites.

The only traffic controls are two 30-inch stop signs on 30th, one for drivers approaching 21st from the south, the other for drivers approaching on 30th from the north. Both sections of 30th are dead ends, while 21st is a primary thoroughfare for Kings Point, Sun City Center and parts east looking for a fast, unhampered route to U.S. 41 as residents from the west aim for sites in and around the retirement centers.

Cook was standing on his property in the northeast corner of the intersection with his young son, he said, waiting for the multiple school busses that each morning during the academic year pick up elementary, middle and high school students, returning them to the same corner each afternoon. They all saw the deadly collision, heard the twisting of metal, scattered as the out-of-control vehicles lurched toward them, and began to wrestle with the reality of death, so sudden, without warning.

For Cook and his son, it was not the first time. They both witnessed the 2009 crash in the same intersection when three young children died. That one was attributed to alcohol.

Cook’s father, John Cook, a long-time resident of the area who formerly owned the property where his son now is beginning the foundation for a new home, told The Observer he can recall at least 10 fatalities in the same intersection over the last 30 years. Three generations of Cooks now want to put an end to crashes in the intersection, to the devastations inflicted on families left, to the gruesome tasks of collecting personal effects from the roadways and tending lifeless bodies in their front yard.

The situation is taking a heavy toll on his family, Aaron Cook said this week. His wife has begun to question whether the family should continue to try to make their home on the corner, he said, casting doubt on the new home he was planning. His daughter, in middle school, is expressing the same fear that death a few feet away is both unpredictable and inescapable. His son, still in elementary school, may have seen more than he successfully can process, Cook noted.

Looking ahead, the husband and father ponders if fencing around the new home or a planted hedge to complement the full-grown trees on the road frontage is sufficient protection for the children who get home from school before he and his wife return from work. Will such measures stop the rolling, bouncing, careening vehicles whose drivers have lost control before they hit the house, he asked rhetorically. “But this was where we wanted to be.”

 There are possible remedies that could be undertaken by county authorities, he added. In fact, he carefully diagrammed what he believes is the best plan under the circumstances. His concept calls for at least one set of speed bumps on 21st east of 30th for westbound drivers and two more sets on 21st west of 30th to warn and slow eastbound vehicles. He’d also like to see a blinking caution light to alert eastbound drivers to the crowded school bus stop ahead.

Most important, he said, is making the 21st and 30th intersection a four-way stop with lighted stop signage, encouraging drivers to halt completely, and to take note of other vehicles, regardless of direction.

Hillsborough traffic engineers, however, gave the suggested traffic control devices a lukewarm reception this week. Neither speed bumps nor rumble strips are suitable for “a collector arterial” road such as 21st . said Steve Valdez, spokesman for the traffic engineering section. Such road additives would serve more to encourage clustering of slowed traffic, thereby inviting rear-end crashes, Valdez said.

The same circumstance could be expected if the 21st and 30th intersection were made a four-way stop, with or without lighted signage, he added.

On the other hand, the intersection is on the engineers’ radar and the most recent fatality there did prompt immediate trimming of the heavy overgrowth of vegetation in the southwest corner which could impair views of oncoming traffic, the spokesman asserted.

Acknowledging that two-lane 21st is a long, flat straight-away inviting higher speeds, Valdez said the existing stop signs on 30th could be replaced with larger 36-inch versions, that white stop lines can be painted on north and south 30th, that additional speed limit signs could be posted along 21st theoretically aiding enforcement by local patrolling law officers and that a pair of flashing speed feedback units could be placed on 21st near the intersection with 30th for the next several months.

Asked when such measures might be installed, Valdez estimated “within a month,” adding “everything we can do, we will do.”

Cook, however, was not overwhelmed. He pointed to another, similar intersection a few blocks north and west of his location – the 24th Street and 14th Avenue S.E. crossing near the U.S. weather station. While 14th is a more heavily traveled east-west roadway than 21st, the four way stop where 24th crosses it does not slow or cluster traffic and rear-end crashes are not prevalent there, he contended. The engineers’ rationale for not using a four-way control on the lesser traveled 21st where so many have met death seems to defy logic, he added.

So, this week and next week and the following week, the sheriff’s office will keep open the traffic fatality investigation. One local family sorrowfully will say farewell to a daughter as another works on healing injuries. Cook and his children will wait for buses, along with many other youngsters from the area, eyeing a barely controlled intersection warily. And no one will know how long before the next killing collision there.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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