A Lawrence County commissioner has brought it to the state Department of Transportation's attention that more safety measures might be needed along a stretch of Route 422 where many accidents, including fatals and near-fatals, have occurred.
But a fire official who has helped with rescues in many of those accidents counters that most of the accidents he's seen there were caused by driver error.
Of particular concern is the intersection of Routes 422 and 388, straddling Shenango and Slippery Rock townships, where a crash two weeks ago seriously injured Shenango Area School District Superintendent Michael Schreck and his son, Aidan. A tractor-trailer smashed into the back of their vehicle as it was starting to proceed in a line from a red-turned-green traffic light.
Commissioner Dan Vogler during the commissioners meeting Tuesday noted that, although the county doesn't own any roads, all three commissioners agreed that they needed "to reach out to PennDOT" about their concerns regarding the highway's safety. Vogler said he contacted Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, PennDOT's district executive, regarding the stretch of Route 422 corridor between Shenango Township and the Butler County line. He said that a number of serious accidents have occurred along that section of highway.
He said Moon-Sirianni advised him that she would consult a PennDOT traffic safety engineer about the matter, to look into the potential for additional safety enhancements along that stretch.
"This is something all three of us feel very strongly about," Vogler said.
David Rishel, Shenango Area Fire District chief, who has been a firefighter for about 40 years, said that he's seen many accidents on that stretch of highway, and nearly every accident has been the fault of a driver and not the fault of the road.
"I've seen a lot of dead people on that road and almost every cause has been driver error," Rishel said. "I can't say a bad word about PennDOT when it comes to this."
Three years ago in November 2018, a six-vehicle crash there involved a New Castle Area Transit Authority bus, a tractor-trailer, a pickup truck and three cars, two of which landed upside-down on guard rails. Multiple people were entrapped and had to be extricated, and reports were that three victims were flown to hospital trauma centers.
"Everybody lived because we got them out of there in a hurry," Rishel said. "Had we not cut the people out and gotten them on a helicopter to a Trauma 1 center, one definitely would have died and two others could have."
An accident as recently as 9 a.m. Monday involved a truck carrying a rolloff filled with several totes filled with stainless steel overturned at that intersection. No injuries were reported. The driver was on Route 388 and had stopped at the red light, preparing to turn left onto Route 422. As the light turned green and he proceeded, the load shifted and caused the truck to roll over, Rishel said.
It's been nearly 30 years or more since PennDOT put up a bright flashing light on the traffic signal and speed warning signs for vehicles as ways to warn vehicles of the approaching intersection. Those measures were prompted by a study done there after a fatal accident, when a tanker truck struck a car pulling out of the Wilmont tavern and the tanker burst into flames.
"I remember every detail of that night," Rishel said. He and his fellow firefighters were called away from their Christmas party to what was the most horrific accident he has seen on that road. The tanker was carrying 8,000 gallons of gasoline — 2,000 in each of four tanks.
The tanker driver was severely burned and escaped the burning truck, then rescued all four of the car occupants through the hatchback of the car and was lying at the side of the road. When Rishel arrived, he said to Rishel, "Everyone's out."
The tanker driver died a few days later.
"I remember, we raised a big stink with PennDOT about the number of crashes on that road, and they did an accident analysis and said that almost every accident on that road was from driver error. It's not like you can blame the road for the crashes," Rishel said.
He recalled another triple fatal in front of the Wilmont where a car had pulled onto Route 422 in front of another one and was broadsided.
Referring to the accident involving Schreck, he said, "You can't blame the road for a truck driver that hits a car from behind at 50 or 60 miles per hour. The videos are gut-wrenching, to see how violent that crash was."