Iowa I-35 and Grand Avenue On-Ramp a Lesson in Dangerous Design
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West Des Moines, Iowa - A motorcyclist death in West Des Moines was ruled an accident; meaning no criminal charges will be brought against the driver of the other truck involved. The motorcyclist was identified as Joel Hess a 54-year-old man from Des Moines. The description by the Des Moines Register reporter makes it appear the cycle rider was first thrown from his bike and then hit by a truck. For those of you who aren't familiar with this accident it's the one that took place on Interstate 35 southbound at the Grand Avenue onramp in West Des Moines. That section of highway is just southeast of Glen Oaks Golf Course and west of S. 50th Street and Quail Park. It's about a half to a mile north of the Highway 5 bypass.
The news report quotes a woman who says 18 motorcycles were merging onto interstate 35. What's interesting about her statement is she says the first motorcyclist who was struck was trying to avoid gravel. The second, her grandfather laid down his bike to avoid crashing with the vehicles involved. I'm not sure where she obtained her information or exactly what is meant about the gravel situation, but it could be a road maintenance issue brought about by budget constraints.
Aside from the gravel situation, this is absolutely a dangerous on-ramp to Interstate 35; I know because I live close by and have used it to get to the airport by the Highway 5 bypass. This entire Interstate 35 ramp system at this location needs to be redesigned; its ancient history and no longer can support the traffic load or speeds in that section of highway. The lanes need to be widened to 3 both north and south. What is most dangerous about it is the off-ramp and on-ramp cross making cars coming from the on-ramp driver's rear anticipating whether the on-ramp driver can get enough speed before a collision occurs. I strongly suggest you avoid this onramp. The better ramp is at Mills Civic Parkway, just to the north.
The other thing I've noticed about this on-ramp is that cars and trucks heading south seldom move into the left lane as they approach that location. Knowing its just two lanes should indicate to some extent they need to move over and leave the right lane open or clear for oncoming traffic. Maybe a sign suggesting drivers be ready to move to the left and to slow their speed would help until the road widening project is completed. Although I have to admit adding more for driver's to pay attention to is probably going to have mixed results.
Another issue is the length of the lane that oncoming traffic has to get up to highway speed after entering Interstate 35. It's too short and doesn't give the driver enough time to increase their speed before having to merge. That and the onramp is a very tight curve which forces drivers to take it slow while approaching the interstate highway.
So here is the sequence of what normally happens. The riders from Grand Avenue enter the on-ramp. They notice the curve is extremely tight and so they slow down. These oncoming drivers get to the top of the on-ramp curve and Interstate 35 is just two lanes. That means traffic is many times bunched up scrunched together and tearing along at 65+ miles per hour. At the top of the on-ramp you have a short distance to get up to highway speed and as you look in your rear view mirror you have to make a choice; if drivers in the right lane won't move over you have to stop on the ramp. And that means you have to look behind to see if you're about to be rear ended and then be ready to either merge or stop altogether. It's absolutely not a good design.
Here is what the Iowa DOT says about that location.
The motorcyclists involved in the crash were not wearing helmets, Miller said.
The half-mile stretch of interstate that runs from the ramp south has seen 43 crashes in the last nine years, said Tom Welch, an Iowa Department of Transportation safety engineer. Nine of those collisions involved vehicles merging at the spot where the crash took place, he said.
"I wouldn't call that an exceptional number of crashes for the volume of traffic out there," Welch said.
"It's not that many. We have intersections in urban Des Moines that have more crashes than that."
I guess that's one way to look at it.
Another question is whether the first motorcycle driver may have had some fault in his driving decisions. There is also the question of whether the motorcycle riders were too tight; meaning not enough room between each row in the line. Of course the design of this roadway would cause the motorcyclists to bunch up as they attempted to gain entry onto Interstate 35 without getting in an accident. Is the accident investigation complicated? You bet this one is complicated. Is the intersection a dangerous one? No question about it.
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