It sounds like a bad plot from 1980s horror cinema: a street in a quiet neighborhood that turns cars insane, their wheels shrieking on asphalt as they whip out of control, slamming into street signs, utility poles and buildings.
But it's true for a section of Chapel Hill Road in Durham, which has long been a nightmare for many neighborhood residents. Those residents say the road's unexpected curves have led to numerous violent crashes, especially the confusing intersection of Chapel Hill Road and Bivins Street, where Jersey Avenue intrudes from one side.
According to a study by the N.C. Department of Transportation, over the past three years, nine accidents have occurred at the intersection of Chapel Hill Road and Bivins Street. Include the curvaceous half mile of Chapel Hill Road from Lakewood Avenue to Anderson Street and that number balloons to 40.
Kim Dupre, who lives and runs a business, Wellville Massage and Healing Arts, near the intersection, has seen a number of crashes and near misses there. On the morning of May 21, 2010, Dupre heard the familiar sounds of squealing wheels and a thud outside her home.
"When I came out there was a car on my front porch," she said.
A white Honda had flown over the curb at 50 mph and blasted through her fence. Its rear wheels got hung up on the edge of a brick retaining wall, halting the car just before it barreled into her house.
This past June, a car traveling 50 mph down Chapel Hill Road hit a telephone pole near the intersection and snapped it in half, the top portion of the pole still suspended by its cables. The driver told police she swerved to avoid a vehicle turning from Bivins Street. And two months later, on Aug. 21, a drunk driver missed the curve and crashed into the same pole, snapping it in half again.
That number of accidents is not unusual for a road in the city, according to both Al Grandy, division traffic engineer for N.C. DOT, and Phil Loziuk, traffic operations engineer for the city of Durham. And contrary to worries that cars regularly speed through the curves, repeated traffic studies by the city have shown that 85 percent of the cars traveling that portion of Chapel Hill Road are going 32 mph or slower in a 35 mph zone.
"For the life of me I don't know why there are so many crashes on a 35 mph road," Grandy said. "But look at the pictures. There's something going on."
Residents say the problem isn't captured with police statistics and traffic engineering. Kim Hanauer, who lives two houses from the intersection, says the crossing is perilous for pedestrians. "I put a lot of effort into my front yard," she said. "I really love talking with people when they're going to the grocery store or out walking with their kids."
Several of her neighbors commiserated on the challenge of crossing Chapel Hill Road. Sometimes you have to wait for as many as two dozen cars to race by, one resident said, only to be almost run over by the 25th, zooming past with its horn blazing. In the 2010 incident outside Dupre's house, the white Honda barely missed a wagon full of children from a nearby preschool, said Dupre. She hasn't seen the daily wagon ride, which used to travel by "like clockwork," since that close call.
That near-tragedy was the breaking point for Sarah Dawson, whose 2-year-old daughter, Dawson said, already recognizes the sounds of an accident. Dawson was alarmed to learn that Lakewood Montessori Middle School would open this month, about a block south from the intersection. Of the initial 200 students, many would walk or bike from nearby neighborhoods.
Last year, Dawson organized two meetings with City Councilman Mike Woodard, Durham Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen and police Capt. Anthony Marsh, who relayed the residents' concerns to the N.C. DOT. But after the string of wrecks continued this summer, Dawson reignited her efforts, pleading with N.C. DOT for action.
Loziuk, the Durham DOT engineer, says he received complaints about the intersection for four years, and the department has made several changes. The state transportation department has posted signs showing a curve and encouraging drivers to slow to 25 mph. The DOT has also added new pavement markings that highlight the curve. But the measures don't appear to be effective, Loziuk said, slowing traffic only by a couple of miles per hour. So when Dawson and other residents appealed to him again this year, Loziuk arranged to meet with the N.C. DOT to re-evaluate the site.
Loziuk, along with Grandy, Woodard and Durham DOT Assistant Director of Technical Services Wesley Parham, met with the residents last Wednesday night to discuss their findings and recommendations.
They identified three main problems with the intersection: the hazardous pedestrian crossing, the curve and the blind turn off Bivins Street onto Chapel Hill Road. The state engineers have agreed to install a five-way stop at the intersection this week. In addition, Loziuk says the N.C. DOT will create an official school zone for the Montessori school. In the future, the state could also relocate some of the crosswalks.
"I just feel a real forward movement here," said Dupre, whose house will share a corner with one of the stop signs. "Everybody who lives on this road cares about it. It's certainly the best place to start."