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Following fatal crash, Charlottesville residents want changes to Fifth Street

After several fatal car accidents on Fifth Street leading out of Charlottesville, community members are pushing the city to do more to ensure safety.

Seven people have been killed in accidents on the road in the last six years. Most recently, a Richmond woman was killed in a New Year’s Day crash on the road. Police have not yet released her identity.

Four people were killed in 2020 in accidents on Fifth Street. Rahmean Rose, 23, was killed in a motorcycle collision, and Dustin Parr, 30, was killed in a reckless driving crash. Devin Stinnie, 28, and Rashod Walton, 23, were killed in a car crash later that year.

Eric Betthauser, 43, a music teacher at Western Albemarle High and Henley Middle schools, was killed by a drunken driver in 2016. Quintus Brooks, 20, was killed in a crash in 2018.

“Fifth Street is an unsafe road, and it’s been unsafe for decades and decades. And we want it made safe. People have been asking for this road to be made safer for many, many years,” said Matthew Gillikin of Livable Cville, a community organization that advocates for affordable housing, public transportation and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure in Charlottesville.

The group recently held a rally to demand safety improvements, including slower speed limits following the fatal New Year’s Day crash. It continues to pressure City Council and staff to make changes.

Gillikin said the rally was well-attended by people who live nearby the street and was supported by family members of people who have been killed in crashes on the street.

“The changes we’re asking for are modest,” Gillikin said. “Will the city put some money aside to actually slow down, make some structural changes to the traffic? I hate that this hasn’t been addressed for so long. But that’s what’s going to have to happen with the city.”

Slow it down

Livable Cville is asking the city to make three changes to Fifth Street: reduce the speed limit from 45 to 40 mph, install advanced intersection warning signs and make signal improvements. These are all based on recommendations proposed to the city council by city traffic engineer Brennen Duncan in November 2020.

Duncan said his recommendation to decrease the speed limit by five miles per hour was determined by looking at the speed and crash data for the corridor.

“The majority of drivers are going the speed limit, but there are a significant number of fender-bender, bumper-type things and reducing the speed limit by five miles an hour may help [fix] that,” Duncan said. “Before this most recent fatality, all of the other ones that really had nothing to do with the posted speed limit or anything like that, they were all reckless driving or driving under the influence. There’s not a lot that we can do as traffic engineers to eliminate that fully.”

That’s where more major changes have to come in, Duncan said, including the possibility of creating roundabouts at some intersections.

“You can drive recklessly on any street, but there are very few streets in the city that are as wide and straight and long as Fifth Street, and so it lends itself to if someone wants to drive recklessly, they can get it up to some pretty crazy reckless speeds,” Duncan said.

“On a regular city street, with parking on both sides, reckless driving might be driving 50 miles an hour. On Fifth Street, reckless driving is happening at the 90 to 100 mile an hour threshold,” he said. “That’s where that roundabout idea would come in and trying to put something in the middle of that corridor to cut it up, so it’s not a mile long straightaway.”

According to Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders, the city is actively working on making safety improvements to the road.

During a recent City Council meeting, Sanders said city staff is pursuing a speed limit reduction and plans to present the matter to the council at an upcoming meeting.

Sanders said the city has also ordered flashing signs warning of upcoming traffic signals but said supply chain issues have delayed their arrival. He said the city is looking at additional improvements to the traffic light to the intersection of Cherry Avenue and Elliott Avenue.

“We recognize that these are really temporary small fixes. They’re not necessarily significant enough to prevent the various tragedies that have occurred,” Sanders said. “But we know we do know at this point that breaking up the street is the most effective improvement and that is the most expensive one, of course.”

A roundabout way

Councilor Michael Payne said in an email to The Daily Progress that he supports adding roundabouts.

“Our biggest opportunity to achieve that is likely through VDOT’s Smart Scale process, which could provide us with significant state money to make safety improvements,” Payne said. “I plan to make sure Fifth Street is discussed as a priority during that process and I would encourage everyone in the community interested in this issue to get involved.”

Payne said the city has received over $14 million from Smart Scale for safety and pedestrian improvements in the past few years for nearby corridors. He said there “could be a real opportunity to achieve our goals through that process.”

Councilor Juandiego Wade said he supports pursuing funding for these improvements.

“Some of these [changes] may have to take allocating some money for these improvements. I served as transportation planner for many years for [Albemarle County] so I know there may be some opportunities for some safety funds. We need to look at all options possible to take care of this,” Wade said.

Major change to the road will take both money and time plus support from the council.

“[Safety on Fifth Street] has been an issue that Sanders has taken very seriously since his start with the city,” Councilor Sena Magill said in an email. “The loss of life that has been experienced is tragic and the city is not turning a blind eye. However government, in general, does not move quickly.”

Duncan said while some of the short term projects like signal signs are in progress, some of the bigger projects will need City Council’s blessing.

“Those are in City Council’s court, if they want to move forward with that. We kind of need direction and funding,” Duncan said.

Duncan said he has met with Sanders following the most recent accident. He said they’re looking to conduct a more in-depth study in the next six months and garner input from the public as well.

“With any of the options that we want to do, there’s going to be pretty severe pros and cons. And so as a community, we need to figure what level of traffic might we be willing to deal with,” Duncan said.

Gillikin pointed out that several of the people killed in crashes along Fifth Street were people of color.

“Traffic, bike and pedestrian safety issues are an equity issue. They disproportionately impact Black and brown people. And I think we’ve seen that both in who have been victims of the accidents that have occurred there, but also with who lives adjacent to the road,” Gillikin said noting that a large subsidized apartment complex, Greenstone on 5th, is adjacent to the road.

“It’s predominantly African American and Hispanic and refugee families, and they’re having the impact of the noise pollution, the air pollution,” he said. “This is an issue of equity to make this road safer, for not just the people that are driving it, but also the people that live along it.”

The city recently launched a new application process for roadside memorials, sparked by Brooks’ family request to place a “Drive Safely” memorial sign on Fifth Street. Sanders mentioned this during the City Council meeting as a motivation to fix the problem.

“I have visited with two other families who have lost loved ones over the years. And I’ve heard their pleas for intervention and I’ve been working on this since I got here. Those meetings were in regards to memorializing their loved ones with markers. And that to me is the motivation that we need to continue to focus on getting the kinds of improvements along this corridor as soon as possible,” Sanders said.


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