On Route 24, dangers lie in careless motorists and road design

Police and fire officials surveyed the scene of a multivehicle accident on Route 24 in West Bridgewater that left two people dead and several others injured on July 15.
Police and fire officials surveyed the scene of a multivehicle accident on Route 24 in West Bridgewater that left two people dead and several others injured on July 15.
George Rizer for the Boston Globe/file

BRIDGEWATER — State Trooper Duarte Tavares cruises along Route 24, the highway he has been patrolling for six years, left hand on the wheel and right hand on his computer. He keys in the plate numbers of certain cars on the road in search of drivers with outstanding warrants, expired inspection stickers, and other violations. It’s nearly 11 p.m. on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and he’ll stop more than a dozen motorists before his shift ends.

Route 24 is known for being a straight and flat highway, where many motorists drive fast and tailgating is common. Following a series of fatal crashes this summer, State Police stepped up their presence by sending extra troopers out on weekends to pull over careless drivers and hand out as many speeding tickets as possible. The hope is that the patrol surge, which continues all this month, will get drivers to slow down and prevent accidents.

“We’re trying to make it safe so people can get home at night,” says Tavares, who lives in Taunton. “When you’re driving so fast, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room.”

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Indeed, accidents happen all too frequently on the highway, many with tragic consequences.

During 2010, the most recent year for which comprehensive figures were available from the state Department of Transportation, more than 800 serious accidents were documented along the 41-mile stretch of Route 24 between Randolph and Fall River, according to a Globe analysis of the crash data. In each of those crashes, someone was either hurt or killed, or there was at least $1,000 worth of property damage.

Five people died in traffic accidents on Route 24 last year, according to the State Police.

This year, six people have died on the highway. On July 12, a 12-year-old Norton girl was killed when the truck she was riding in blew a tire and rolled over near the Avon-Stoughton line. She was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle.

Three days later, just before 4 a.m., a car driving the wrong way on the highway collided head-on with a pickup truck in West Bridgewater. Two people — a 19-year-old Mansfield woman and a 44-year-old man from Rhode Island — died in the fiery crash.

“Some of the crashes we see on 24 are among the most horrific in the state,” said State Police spokesman David Procopio, who calls the 1950s-era highway a “deadly road” with long straightaways where drivers can quickly pick up speed.

“There’s not much space on the shoulders, so if you have to swerve and try to recorrect yourself there’s not much room,” he said. “It’s reflective of when the road was built and the fact that it’s become a major north-south corridor. There’s a lot of commerce down there, and a lot of industry. It’s just very heavily traveled.”

Transportation planners say the highway’s design falls short by today’s standards.

“It’s definitely one of the more dangerous roads in Southeastern Mass.,” said Charles Kilmer, transportation program manager for the Old Colony Planning Council, which represents several communities along the Route 24 corridor.

Kilmer participated in a road safety audit of Route 24 in 2008. The study found that the highway’s interchanges do not provide enough room for vehicles entering or exiting the roadway to accelerate or slow down safely. Many of the ramps are short and curve sharply, so drivers have to turn the wheel and step on the gas to merge into the traffic flow.

“The design standards date back to the 1950s,” said James C. Hadfield, transportation planning manager for the Southeastern Regional Planning & Economic Development District, another regional agency. “The entire highway would never be able to be built today.”

Route 24 stretches between Interstate 93 in Randolph and Fall River, where it crosses the state line into Rhode Island, passing through the communities of Canton, Stoughton, Avon, Brockton, West Bridgewater, Bridgewater, Raynham, Taunton, Berkley, and Freetown. It serves as a key thoroughfare for commuters because it leads into Boston and provides access to interstates 495 and 195. On weekends and at night, many take Route 24 to visit restaurants and nightclubs in Rhode Island.

Originally called the Fall River Expressway and later designated the Amvets Memorial Highway, it was constructed piece by piece throughout the 1950s.

When the road was first built, “there was a lot less traffic,” said Hadfield. “It was easier to merge into the flow of traffic than it is now, especially during certain times, the peak periods, of the day.”

In the summer of 1957, as the highway was nearing completion, the Globe reported that an animal “as big as an elephant” was seen ambling along the Fall River Expressway. Brockton police rushed to the scene in a patrol car and found two cows on the road.

Rural scenes like that became increasingly rare, because the new highway brought with it new development. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, subdivisions of homes were built and bedroom communities bloomed. As the region swelled in population, so did traffic on Route 24, from roughly 40,000 cars a day in 1979 to nearly 87,000 in 2005. Today, more than 100,000 drivers a day travel on Route 24.

All the development surrounding Route 24 has left little room for widening the roadway or significantly improving its design, according to Hadfield.

“To make major improvements to interchanges is difficult, if not impossible,” he said. “It is a very challenging task to widen the corridor.”

State officials are taking other steps to make Route 24 safer. Screens have been installed on concrete barriers on the median to help reduce the headlight glare from vehicles traveling on the other side of the road. Electronic signs warn drivers to “slow down” and “speed kills.”

The additional State Police patrols are being deployed on Friday and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Route 24 and Interstate 195.

Procopio said that in the first six weekends of the patrol surge, which began July 27, troopers made 55 arrests for driving under the influence and 56 arrests on other charges, issued 42 criminal summons, and wrote 1,640 citations for motor vehicle infractions.

Hadfield said the increased police presence and enforcement can only help.

“Hopefully they keep a presence out there,” he said. “Barring a major reconstruction of the corridor . . . a frequent police presence can give it a reputation as being a speed trap.”

Hadfield suggests that another way to slow down traffic on Route 24 would be to install video cameras to monitor for speeding vehicles.

“The severity of crashes that have occurred recently is likely due to the speed of the vehicles,” he said, adding that if the Legislature were to pass a law that would allow cameras on Route 24,, with ticketing based on the remote surveillance, “they could save lives.”

Frank DePaola, highway administrator for the state Department of Transportation, says he doesn’t think Route 24 is inherently less safe than other comparable roadways in Massachusetts.

He noted that many of the recent fatal crashes on the highway involved excessive speed or impaired driving.

“If people obeyed the rules of the road, some of them could have been avoided,” DePaola said of the accidents.

The state official knows Route 24 well: He grew up in Brockton and lives in West Bridgewater, and he drives his black Ford Crown Victoria on Route 24 “every day, twice a day” commuting to Boston.

“It’s not uncommon to have the main part of traffic going 70 miles per hour or higher, even when there are lots of vehicles on the road,” DePaola said. “People are trying to merge, and they’re merging with vehicles going 70, 75 miles per hour . . . On the Southeast Expressway, you can practically get out and push your car onto the road. On Route 24, you’d better be stepping on the gas.”

In addition to speeding, distracted driving is also a problem on Route 24, DePaola said.

“I’ve seen people with books on their steering wheels,” he said.

That’s the type of distracted driving that aggravates Sherman Cox, a realtor with Four Points Realty in West Bridgewater. Cox travels up and down Route 24 six days a week for work. “I see so many people on their phones texting, and it’s a dangerous road to begin with,” he said.

The 48-year-old Easton resident said he believes the main reason the road is unsafe is the fast-moving traffic and the sheer number of distracted drivers. He wants to see “more undercover police to get people who are texting and driving.”

Holbrook resident Amanda Robichaud, who uses Route 24 to commute to her job as a hostess at the Charlie Horse restaurant in West Bridgewater, said most drivers aren’t out there racing. But, she said, “It’s so straight people tend to lose track of how fast they’re going.”

And navigating certain exits and merging into fast-moving traffic can be challenging. “Some ramps are better than others,” Robichaud said.

On the Friday night before Labor Day, blue lights were a common sight on the highway. Eight troopers from the Middleborough barracks, including Tavares, were patrolling the stretch between Brockton and Freetown.

Just before 11 p.m., the radar on Tavares’ low-profile Ford cruiser picked up a speeding driver ahead. He turned on his flashing lights as he talked about some of the more aggressive speeders he’s pulled over.

“One guy blew by me at 106,” said Tavares. “He told me his car was stuck in fourth gear, and I said, ‘Was your foot stuck on the gas, too?’ ”

The speeding car pulled into a rest area and stopped. Tavares put on his trooper hat, as he does for each stop, grabbed his flashlight, and walked up to the sedan with authority.

“Do you know why I pulled you over, ma’am?”