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CITIZENS GROUP LOOKS TO PREVENT FUTURE TRAGEDIES ON ACCIDENT-PLAGUED ROUTE 16

A horrendous noise woke Lucy Krol from a deep sleep early one morning four years ago. Her home on Route 16 just north of Holland shook, and she ran downstairs to see what had happened.

At the bottom of the stairs, her living room had disappeared under a pile of wood. The wall was gone, giving her an unobstructed view of the tractor-trailer that had wrapped itself around the big maple tree in her front yard. The impact had projected the truck's cargo of lumber into her home and buckled her foundation.

"I was grateful we weren't up, because we likely would have been in the living room," said Ms. Krol, whose daughter's friend, 11-year-old Sara Reichert, was hit by a car July 29 while trying to cross the road on her bicycle. "It's unthinkable what could have happened."

The unthinkable has happened, though, many times along Route 16, the main thoroughfare connecting Buffalo and it's southern suburbs to Olean.

Talk with anybody who has lived for any length of time in the communities along this busy road -- South Wales, Holland, Chaffee, Delevan, Machias, Franklinville, Ischua, Hindsale -- and the stories about accidents -- some minor, many fatal -- come quickly. It's a road that local motorists dread and local public safety officials believe is dangerous.

"When I ride my personal motorcycle, I tend to avoid it," said Anthony Clabeau, an Erie County sheriff's deputy, whose job puts him on the road on a daily basis. "It's a bad road. You feel unsafe."

That's why Mary Cooper formed the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for a Safer Route 16, enlisting Ms. Krol and others in an attempt to cut down the accidents that routinely kill and injure motorists and pedestrians who travel the area's main north-south connector.

"A lot of people are hurting because they've lost a lot of loved ones on Route 16," said Ms. Cooper, 32, who lives in South Wales, where four-lane Route 400 turns into two-lane Route 16. "It seemed like everybody I talked to told me about at least two people they know who were involved in bad accidents."

The coalition is conducting its first public meeting on the issue at 7 p.m. today in the South Wales Community Center. Ms. Cooper is hoping it's the start of a process that will lead to meaningful change and prevent future tragedies.

The state Department of Transportation, which oversees the road, will analyze Route 16's traffic patterns, volume and speed, its engineering and its accident rates, according to DOT assistant regional traffic engineer Richard Pratt.

He said it would be at least several months before the review is complete.

Pratt said he won't have data on accident rates until the study is done, so he was unable to say how it compares with other routes. But people who live or work along Route 16 believe the study will show a road where traffic and speeds have increased and where accidents are a far too common occurrence.

"Route 16 is the thing I dread along my route," said mail carrier Linda King, who travels in the breakdown lane with a flashing light atop her car as she makes deliveries in Chaffee. "In the summertime, there's trucks barreling, and they don't care how fast they're going. And in the winter, there's whiteouts."

"I've seen people die in my front yard," said Mary Butcher, whose home is perhaps 25 feet from the road in South Wales. "I'm raising two boys here, and it's nerve-racking."

Part of the problem is the road itself, which winds through hill country. There are limited opportunities to pass legally. Stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle for miles, frustrated motorists take sometimes deadly gambles when they feel there is a chance to pass.

One of the places where passing is possible is an area between South Wales and Holland called the Strawberry Flats. Not coincidentally, it's also the place where Holland Fire Chief Geoffrey Hack spends a lot of time dealing with the tragic results of a bad accident.

"That's usually where the majority of the deaths occur," he said. "They see a straightaway, they take off, and there's not enough room."

Those in a hurry also are frustrated by huge trucks hauling gravel from the area's numerous pits.

"It's just one semi after another," said Connie Walker, a Yorkshire Town Board member. There also has been an increase in car traffic as more people move away from the city and suburbs or buy second homes in the hills.

Ms. Cooper is pressing for a uniform 40-mph speed limit along the road, where speed limits range from 35 mph to 55 mph.

"I would certainly not be averse to that at all," said State Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, whose district includes part of the area. "I think that's a good idea, although some of the locals might feel they should be able to go faster."

Changing the speed limit will take time, but Ms. Cooper thinks there's something that could be done immediately that would help.

"I'd like to see a big sign, with a little creative writing that lists the number of accidents that have happened on that stretch of road," she said.

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