The Chicago area’s 20 most dangerous intersections

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The most dangerous intersection in the City of Chicago is at the intersection of 79th Street, South Chicago Avenue and Stony Island Boulevard. Tuesday, February 15, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

For about 10 seconds, traffic at the city’s most dangerous intersection came to a screeching halt.

Sirens deafened the ears of a handful of pedestrians waiting to cross, and the dozens of cars trying to pass the hectic six lanes of traffic had no choice but to stop.

A fire truck veered past, cautiously crossing to race to a fire.

For a moment, there was peace.

Then it’s back to reality, and the cars began their dance to the other side of the street.

This is where Stony Island Avenue meets 79th Street and South Chicago Avenue, forming a huge, hectic intersection with the ramps of the Chicago Skyway overhead.

To pedestrians, it’s arguably overwhelming, and to drivers, it’s somewhere you’ll need to pay extra attention.

And in 2010 it recorded 63 crashes – the most of any intersection in the six-county region, according to the latest crash figures from the Illinois Department of Transportation.

It’s complicated

“I’ve been talking about this intersection for a long, long time.” said nearby resident Julius Blackwell, 30. “It’s a little crazy out here.”

A city study seeking improvements called it “uninviting” and “challenging for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.”

It’s crossed by 70,000 cars and trucks a day and is consistently on the list of accident-prone intersections.

Cars traveling south on South Chicago have about 11 seconds to cross Stony Island before the light turns red again. And those are the ones who don’t race through the red light.

The city says red-light cameras were installed at the intersection on June 1, 2007, and on average 34 drivers were ticketed every day. By June 2010, however, that was down to three violations per day.

A study of red-light camera intersections in 2010 found there was an 8 percent reduction in total crashes, including at the Stony Island intersection.

Still, the complexity of the intersection confuses motorists, said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University.

“Some motorists get disoriented since they can’t process all the [external] stimuli,” Schwieterman said.

With multiple approaches, the Skyway towering above and a railroad viaduct causing shifts in lanes, there is no doubt the intersection causes confusion.

The Stony Island Master Plan was developed several years ago to increase safety at the intersection, but the city is still seeking funding for the project, Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Peter Scales said.

The plan includes short-term and long-term projects to ease congestion and increase safety. Some of the short-term plans include making traffic signals longer for both motorists and bicyclists to get through. Most of the long-term plans are based on increasing safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.

In the 63 crashes recorded at the intersection in 2010, 28 people were injured, state figures show. But only one of the 63 crashes involved a pedestrian, which surprised longtime Southeast Side resident Shirley White.

“I take the bus. I used to have a car,” White said. “But in this area when you’re walking, you know it’s better to just wait out the light or risk people driving you over.”

Follow the signs

Illinois State Police Sergeant Jim Powell grew accustomed to seeing crashes on two expressway ramps: the ramp from westbound I-80 to La Grange Road in Frankfort Township (No. 2); and the ramp from southbound I-55 to Bolingbrook Drive (No. 11).

“Those accidents are all the same,” Powell said. “People stop, and there’s two turning lanes with a sign out there that says no turn on red except right lane.”

But drivers in the right lane panic and stop to look south while making a northbound turn. And boom, they’re rear-ended.

There were 56 crashes on the I-80 westbound ramp at La Grange Road; 45 crashes were recorded on the I-55 southbound ramp.

“I’d say 95 percent of those crashes are property damage [accidents], but they’re still a problem,” Powell said.

Powell says state police are working with the Illinois Department of Transportation to decrease the number of crashes on these ramps and are offering up plenty of suggestions. The most common sense advice, he says, is to pay attention to posted signs near the ramps.

But what’s different now, in 2012? The department says the I-80 westbound ramp was reviewed last year, and the placement of the stop bar – the line on the pavement shown were you are to stop for the signal – was modified to try to prevent rear-end collisions.

It’s too soon to see whether those modifications have helped curb crashes at the ramp, but the department does believe the work performed in recent months has helped with traffic flow and improving safety, spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

On the Weber Road ramp off I-55 in Romeoville – No. 13 on the list – an interchange reconstruction is planned as part of the state’s multiyear road program, Tridgell said. The tentative construction cost is estimated at between $35 million and $40 million.

There are no immediate plans for the Bolingbrook Drive ramp.

More traffic, more crashes

Although there’s no one recipe for a dangerous intersection, there are several common characteristics.

The constant at these intersections is traffic volume, said Roy Lucke, director of Highway and Transportation Safety Programs at Northwestern University. The busier the intersection, the more likely crashes will occur.

“It’s not the number of crashes, it’s the odds that any given vehicle entering the intersection will be involved that really defines ‘danger,’ ” Lucke said.

Still, improvements at these crash-prone intersections are tricky.

“There’s a whole host of factors that need to be studied before any changes can be made,” Tridgell said. “If you’re adding existing controls or signals at one intersection, you could see negative impacts elsewhere.”

Those include backing up traffic and blocking access to businesses and homes.

And for motorists a little wary of traveling through these spots, it’s best just to use common sense: Keep both hands on the wheel, don’t talk or text and pay attention to what is going on.

“The No. 1 thing a motorist can do is obey the speed limit, traffic signs and signals and just always be aware of the presence and vulnerability of pedestrians and cyclists, everywhere in the city,” said Amanda Woodall, policy expert with the Active Transportation Alliance.

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