When a pickup truck ran off the road and plowed through the garage of Colleen Quigley’s duplex off East Riverside Drive, she was sitting at her dining room table, chatting with her teenage son on the phone.
“I heard a boom, like an explosion,” Quigley said. “The cats went flying.”
Her garage was patched up after the crash in May, but her neighbors were shaken for a while. They stopped walking their dogs along the street and kept a more careful eye on kids playing outside.
Riverside, an artery linking downtown to the airport that drivers speed along like it’s a highway, has some of the highest numbers of crashes at intersections among Austin roads, according to an American-Statesman analysis of data from the Texas Department of Transportation. From 2008 to June 2013, there were 885 crashes on Riverside between Interstate 35 and Texas Highway 71.
For comparison, there were 450 intersection crashes on a stretch of William Cannon Drive, between South Pleasant Valley and Manchaca roads, that has 6,000 more cars per day on it.
The need to improve safety on Riverside is pivotal at a time whencity government aims to guide development in the corridor, with the hope that it will one day be lined with a mix of buildings where people work, shop, eat and settle down. For that to happen, some say, Riverside can no longer be a street where residents hear drag racing at night and get boxed into their homes when wrecks close down the road.
“It’s huge. It’s a big quality of life issue,” said Michael Hardy, who lives near Riverside. “It’s like the Wild West out here. People are driving 60 miles per hour.”
Already, the brand new apartment complexes and businesses that have popped up on Riverside have brought more cars and more crashes, said Fred Fletcher, Austin police commander for the 53-square-mile region that includes Riverside.
“You’re putting a whole lot more people in the same number of lanes,” Fletcher said.
About 40,000 cars pass through Riverside each day.
Of those crashes at Riverside over the past five years, none were fatal, according to TxDOT data. Twenty-five resulted in an incapacitating injury, and no one was injured in about 45 percent of the collisions.
Right now, crashes occur frequently at the two points where a highway crosses Riverside, at Interstate 35 and Texas 71, according to TxDOT data. There’s also a high volume of crashes where Riverside intersects with South Pleasant Valley Road, Wickersham Lane and Willow Creek Drive.
A traffic analyst with the Austin Police Department looked at 2012 crash reports for those three intersections. Pleasant Valley saw the highest number of crashes that year, 24. Of those, 42 percent were caused by red light running and 38 percent by failure to yield while turning. At the Wickersham and Willow Creek intersections, failure to yield was the No. 1 factor behind crashes.
As part of the development planning process, the city did an analysis of where crashes have occurred on Riverside and asked residents where they would like to see slower traffic.
The city has already started to make changes to the intersection of Riverside and Pleasant Valley, where there’s been a red light camera since 2008, said Karla Villalon, a spokeswoman for the city’s transportation department. Two corners of the intersection where drivers make wide, sweeping turns will be “squared up,” she said, forcing cars to stop before turning right. The median in Pleasant Valley will be removed, creating room for left turn lanes.
The city has also created additional pedestrian crossings a few hundred feet away from the intersection on both Riverside and Pleasant Valley, said city planner Erica Leak.
Years down the road, the city has proposed creating a shopping and transit hub at the intersection of Riverside and Pleasant Valley.
For other intersections that residents have indicated are dangerous, officials are working on a report with recommendations that will be out soon, but there are no concrete plans yet, Villalon said. Recommendations could include adding more traffic signals and building 15-foot-wide sidewalks.
Fletcher said that in 2013, a growing number of fatal crashes on city roads led police to increase traffic enforcement by 60 percent in the region that spans from US 290E in the north to Ben White Boulevard in the south, which includes Riverside.
In addition to looking at specific intersections, City Council approved a set of zoning and design regulations this spring for the Riverside corridor, which will require parcels of land that are developed to contain a few features that make the street as a whole safer, Leak said.
For instance, developers might have to put in trees, which some say make drivers go slower because their peripheral vision is impeded. The regulations will also cut down on the number of driveways that open up onto Riverside by having buildings placed closer to the sidewalk with no parking in front of them, Leak said.
The goal is to make Riverside accessible not just for drivers but also for bikers and pedestrians. Eventually, the city envisions a light rail running through the corridor.
“We want to improve the transportation network of our city, improve the livability of the city,” Leak said. “Not everyone can drive a car, for a whole variety of reasons, so having other ways that people can get around is really important.”
But as development marches onward, and people flock to Riverside, there will be ever greater opportunities for crashes to occur, said Troy Walden, program manager for the Crash Analysis Group at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute.
For Quigley, crashes on Riverside are just a fact of life. As she recalled flying off her bike after being hit by a driver making a right turn, and coming home to see multiple cars on the lawn outside her duplex, she kept her sense of humor.
“At least right now, the lawn’s looking great,” she said.
Find an interactive map of crashes at intersections along the Riverside Drive corridor with this story at mystatesman.com.
Crash-proofing Austin intersections
An intersection can be altered to make it more safe, based on the type of crashes that most commonly occur there.
Red light running crashes
- install red light cameras
- increase the visibility of the traffic signal
- increase the length of the yellow light
- coordinate traffic signals so drivers make fewer stops
Failure to yield crashes
- introduce left-turn only arrows
- increase the visibility of oncoming traffic
Vehicle vs. pedestrian crashes
- create roundabouts
- use traffic signals with a pedestrian-only crossing phase
- build a raised median in the middle of a multi-lane street
Source: Raghavan Srinivasan, senior transportation research engineer at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center
Putting Riverside in perspective
About 40,000 vehicles drive through E. Riverside Drive each day. There were 885 intersection crashes from 2008 to June 2013 on a 3.6-mile stretch from Interestate 35 to Texas 71.
How do other streets stack up:
Brodie Lane: About 37,000 vehicles drive through the stretch south of William Cannon Drive daily. There were 201 intersection crashes between West Slaughter Lane and Ben White Boulevard.
Burnet Road: About 34,000 vehicles drive through the stretch north of US 183 daily. There were 124 intersection crashes between West Anderson Lane and Mopac.
Source: Karla Villalon, spokeswoman for the city’s transportation department