Four people have been killed this year alone in fatal accidents on Route 522 in Orange County. The decidedly straight state highway has long been recognized as a dangerous roadway, but recent crashes have citizens and county officials calling for action.
A north-south route, Zachary Taylor Highway (522) enter Orange County’s northern border with Culpeper at the Rapidan River and heads south more than 15 miles to the county’s southern border with Lake Anna. It is a two-lane highway throughout its course, bisecting the county through Unionville.
“Route 522 is a very dangerous road and always has been, due to there being limited places to run stationary radar and limited places to turn around while running moving radar,” said Orange County’s sheriff, Mark Amos. “All of 522 is dangerous through Orange County but the three most dangerous intersections would be Route 650 (Independence Road), Route 629 (Lahore Road) and Route 663 (True Blue Road).”
In May, two Unionville residents were killed in a wreck at the Route 650 intersection. In April, a Stevensburg woman died in a wreck near Route 663 and in January, an Edinburg man died in a wreck on Route 522 near the Culpeper county line.
While the issue wasn’t on the agenda at the May 25 meeting of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, chair Jim Crozier took advantage of the regular update from VDOT Resident Engineer, Alan Saunders, to address the topic.
“We have had an abnormally high number of fatal accidents on Route 522,” Crozier said. “I know you’re consistently working on whatever safety improvements you can, but I’ve had a number of constituents who say, ‘they’ve got to do something, they’ve got to do something.’ Is there something you’re looking at more than normal? I understand a lot of it is drivers not paying attention, but are there any safety measures that can be implemented?”
Saunders said he and traffic engineers met the week before to review the situation.
“We’ve seen four fatalities on 522 in Orange County just this year (2020-2021) … It’s a concern for us because some of the countermeasures we like to target wouldn’t have been effective in these incidents,” he said. “We’re trying to think outside the box.”
Sgt. Brent Coffey, the Division II public information officer for the Virginia State Police, said that the same causes show up regularly in accidents.
“I have worked hundreds of crashes in Orange County over several years,” he said. “The most common crash factors are inattentiveness and speed. Citizens not wearing seatbelts is always a factor as well.”
Saunders pointed out that many of the countermeasures that VDOT has employed at the Route 650 intersection have been effective, but more steps can always be taken.
“One of the things we’re looking at, south of Route 20 for an eight mile stretch, is the speed limits, signage, all of the intersection geometry and sight distance,” Saunders said at the May 25 meeting. “We met with the traffic engineers Wednesday. They’re going to evaluate speed limits, look at the pavement markings, the passing zones, all the signage.”
“When you see speeds like that, the first thing I think of is can you put a speed bump in the middle of 522 and get everyone to stop and go over that?” he told the supervisors. “It would generate a lot of noise, but it’s not an ineffective solution. But sometimes we wonder what we can do next.”
VDOT has also had to contend with the age of Route 522. Saunders explained that with each evolution of the road, new safety measures have to be developed.
“If you look back over your shoulder and think about those intersections, some of those roads have been in existence for more than 100 years,” he said. “They evolved from paths that travelers frequented and then at some point became hard surface roads. They were certainly never designed to an engineering standard, especially one that’s common today. Now we see more traffic, larger vehicles and higher speeds. Unfortunately, we see crashes and crash patterns that fall outside of the typical countermeasures VDOT has.”
“Our district traffic engineers are going to evaluate the length of the corridor south of Route 20 all the way down to Lahore Road,” he continued. “And we are going to evaluate the pavement markings, the warning signs, the speed limits, the passing zones, all of it.”
The intersection of 522 and Route 20 (Constitution Highway) is also a problem area, according to Saunders.
Orange County government has long been eyeing the busy Unionville intersection as a spot where they could use state Smart Scale funds to construct a roundabout. Only a certain amount of funds are allotted each year and projects are scored on a number of metrics.
“This last cycle, it got pretty close. So, I’m very hopeful that in the next round of Smart Scale, that we will score well enough that we can build a roundabout at that intersection,” Saunders said.
Meanwhile, further south on Route 522, Saunders said VDOT would like to open the intersections of Route 629 and Route 650 by clearing the existing fence lines.
“We would even replace the fence lines a little further back from the road. But we don’t have any money to purchase right-of-way. So, we are really beholden to the property owners, to allow us to enter their properties, clear all of those trees and have a contractor tear down those fences and push them 100 yards back in each direction,” Saunders said. “That would highlight those intersections and significantly improve visibility. It’s one thing that we can do. It’s not very expensive, but unfortunately we don’t have the right-of-way for it.”
“Those of us who drive that road frequently have hair-raising experiences,” District Two Supervisor Jim White said at the May 11 board meeting. “It’s a challenging situation with no easy solution.”