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Fatal Accidents Force Borough to Reevaluate Park-Atherton Intersection

by on July 23, 2015 6:25 AM

The intersection of Park Avenue and Atherton Street has been the subject of intensive scrutiny after last month’s fatal collision between a car and a scooter, which was the second fatality at the intersection in less than a year.

On June 22, State College resident Joel Reed was killed when his scooter struck a car that was turning left onto Park Avenue. Almost exactly one year before that, Penn State freshman Eva O'Brian died in the hospital two weeks after being struck by a truck while jogging through the same intersection.

Although an intersection safety study conducted by the State College borough in 2010 did not identify the Park-Atherton intersection as particularly dangerous, Public Works Director Mark Whitfield says the borough is taking these recent accidents very seriously.

“For police and public works, any time there’s a fatality or a serious accident, we will immediately look at anything we can do to help prevent that in the future,” Whitfield says. “This intersection has risen high on our list of concerns, alongside other locations.”

The 2010 study ranked every intersection in State College using a number of variables, including the severity of accidents and the amount of property damaged.

In that report, the intersection of Atherton and Park was ranked as one of the least problematic of State College’s 530 intersections, although Whitfield suspects it would rank significantly higher if the report were completed today.

When it comes to damage caused by vehicular accidents, the top five worst intersections in State College all involve Atherton Street at the points where it meets University Drive, College Avenue, Branch Road, Hillcrest Avenue and Nittany Avenue.

Between 2005 and 2009, there were 69 crashes at the intersection of Atherton and University; 114 crashes at Atherton and College; 59 crashes at Atherton and Hillcrest and 36 crashes at Atherton and Nittany. Although the number of crashes may vary, the report identified these intersections as having the greatest number of severe crashes and highest amounts of resulting property damage.

“Typically, a problem at an intersection comes up when someone is not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, so you have to look at what’s causing these accidents,” Whitfield says. “If there’s people running red lights, or pedestrians not obeying crossing signals, then how do you change people’s habits at that intersection?”

Since 2010, borough staff analyzed the traffic patterns at those five intersections along Atherton Street before making a number of safety improvements. Whitfield says the improvements range from removing vegetation that blocked a driver's line of sight to installing new lane control signs and painting new lane dividers and stop lines on the pavement.

Although the Park-Atherton intersection was not originally planned for any upgrades in the near future, it has now jumped to the top of the borough's list. Whitfield says both Atherton Street and Park Avenue are heavily-trafficked, which leads to an increased risk for crashes and accidents.

Whitfield says the borough is considering a myriad of possible long-term safety upgrades for the intersection. The intent is to present a plan to PennDOT to include as part of a construction project scheduled to start in 2018. In order to determine what upgrades may be most effective, borough staff and police are using a PennDOT-provided camera to study traffic patterns and violations at the intersection to better understand the problem.

The planned upgrades – which could include anything from changes to how long traffic signals last to red light cameras – are merely the latest in a long line of annual upgrades to various problem intersections around town.

Whitfield says the borough sets aside about $25,000 each year specifically to go through State College’s most problematic intersections and make improvements. Sometimes that can be as simple as installing new reflectors, whereas sometimes that requires much more intensive construction work to install new signage or traffic signals.

Whitfield says the public works department is now turning its eye toward the next five most problematic intersections identified in the 2010 report, but this work will be conducted alongside planning for the intersection of Atherton and Park.

Top Ten Most Dangerous Intersections ranked by crash severity:

1. Atherton Street & University Drive

2. Atherton Street & College Avenue

3. Atherton Street & Branch Road

4. Atherton Street & Hillcrest Story

5. Atherton Street & Nittany Avenue

6. Atherton Street & White Course Drive

7. Beaver Avenue & Barnard Street

8. College Avenue & Patterson Street

9. College Avenue & Burrowes Street

10. Park Avenue & Allen Street

Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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