Our Views: Tragedy at crossroads suggests big need to keep signs visible

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Gazette editorial board
August 20, 2015

It's not surprising that government officials are pointing fingers after an accident killed two people at an intersection with an obscured stop sign.

After all, no elected leader wants to admit government negligence and risk a lawsuit.

The crash Aug. 1 at Pleasant Prairie Road and County C killed Michael Crotty, 46, of Evansville and Kay Ellen Coleman, 53, of Madison. The Rock County Sheriff's Office says Coleman was unfamiliar with the town of Union road and blew the foliage-obscured stop sign.

The county owns stop signs, even those on town roads, but Rock County Public Works Director Ben Coopman says whatever municipality owns the road is responsible for trimming trees to keep signs visible.

“We don't see anything we could have done differently,” he told Gazette reporter Jake Magee last week.

Kendall Schneider disagrees. The town of Union chairman says because the crash occurred at an intersection with a county highway, the county was responsible for keeping the sign clear.

We're not experts in municipal law, but common sense suggests that when a sign is on a town road, the town should keep it visible.

Coopman and Schneider do agree that other factors likely contributed to the crash. Schneider wonders if speed was an issue because a “stop ahead” sign should have warned Coleman to slow down.

Here's the thing: This wasn't the only rural Rock County intersection with a visibility problem in recent weeks.

Mary Jo Villa is vice president of Bliss Communications and sits on The Gazette's editorial board. She and her husband, Joe, were returning from a weekend up north Aug. 2 when they had a near tragedy west of Edgerton.

Joe was driving south on Washington Road, which flows into County H at Highway 59. He was taking unfamiliar rural roads to skirt an Interstate backup. He saw a “stop ahead” sign but then came to a small stop sign at a railroad crossing. He continued at a slower speed, wondering if that was the lone stop sign. He crested a hill and suddenly realized he was at an intersection, too late to stop.

Highway 59 curves at that spot and was difficult to see, Joe says. Like at the crash site a day earlier, foliage obscured the stop sign. Joe hit the brakes hard enough to jolt awake their granddaughter on the back seat. His vehicle skidded into the intersection. Fortunately, no traffic was approaching on Highway 59.

Regardless of finger-pointing officials, it was good to read in Magee's story that county officials and those in towns are working to prevent similar crashes. The county advised crews to clear any foliage problems they spot. The county trims branches obscuring signs, even if the trees are on private property.

Schneider says he checked more than 80 town of Union intersections. One landowner with brush obstructing a stop sign got a letter with a clearance order, as town ordinance requires.

This isn't just a rural problem, though greater speeds heighten countryside risks. An ordinance requires city of Janesville property owners to keep signs and intersections visible, even if the trees and bushes are on city-owned terraces between sidewalks and streets. Until a tree was trimmed in recent days, for example, branches obscured a traffic light at Liberty Lane and Holiday Drive adjacent to the Janesville Mall. The city notifies the property owner when it learns of an issue, and if the problem isn't alleviated promptly, the city does the work and bills the property owner.

Public works crews and property owners must stay on top of such problems, and motorists should promptly report concerns.

Corrective steps deserve applause, even if they come too late to save two families from mourning after the Aug. 1 crash.


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