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If there is a hot spot in LaRue County for vehicular crashes, it is a two-mile stretch of Bardstown Road between mile points 16.3 and 18.6.
The roadway meanders through some of the state’s most beautiful scenery – the knob area where Abraham Lincoln played as a boy. The historical cabin representing Lincoln’s boyhood home, the fall foliage on trees and Knob Creek are among some of the most photographed scenes in the county.
Tourists and local residents alike have found the beauty to be deceptive – especially after they failed to navigate one of the three curves in the area.
Injury accidents and even fatalities have occurred numerous times on Devers Curve, Lincoln Boyhood Curve and Enlow’s Curve in the last decade.
Three crashes on a recent rainy day is a case in point.
Just after lunch, a pickup swerved off the roadway at the Lincoln Boyhood Curve. The truck struck a tree, a split-rail fence and a water hydrant before coming to a rest in a field. The driver suffered a bloody nose and intense remorse at the loss of a vehicle he had purchased earlier that day.
Minutes later, a second driver lost control of a Chevrolet passenger car in Enlow’s Curve. The tires fell off the pavement and the car struck a culvert beside the roadway. The female driver was transported to a hospital by ambulance.
Just up the road, a set of swerve marks, dug up grass and tire tracks in a yard showed another driver had a close call in Devers Curve.
Kenny Devers, who grew up on the farm in the arc of Devers Curve, has lived in his old homestead for the past 10 years. He’s witnessed more accidents than he cares to count and replaced a fence in front of his house at least three times after a vehicle ran into it.
He removed a fence from the other side of Bardstown Road “because of the accidents.”
The State Highway Department says improvements are on the way. The Department recently completed the purchase of a few acres of right-of-way to re-work Devers Curve, Lincoln Boyhood Curve and Enlow’s Curve.
Chris Jessie, spokesperson for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said the state will “address geometric deficiencies” in the three curves.
“When design began in the spring of 2010 we began to study the crash history and roadway elements of the entire corridor between the bottom of (Muldraugh) hill and Athertonville,” said Jessie. “It was realized that by simply improving Devers Curve and Enlow Curve would not sufficiently address the overall roadway hazards for the corridor.”
The project team established a “clear need” to make safety improvements to the U.S. 31-E corridor based on the vehicle crash history through the area.
A higher proportion than the statewide average of wrecks occurs on the stretch, according to the report.
The Critical Rate Factor – used to determine the occurrence of accidents along a roadway – is 1.61. The statewide average is 1.
Between 2005 and 2010, 50 crashes were reported on the 2.3 miles containing the deficient curves. Of those, nine were on Devers Curve; 10 each on Enlow’s Curve and Boyhood Home Curve; with the rest distributed through that corridor.
Before the State made some repairs in 2005 (re-routing a ditchline, extending a cross drain and repaving the roadway), eight crashes injured three people in 2003 on Devers Curve; in 2004, there were a dozen crashes injuring seven and killing one.
A collision report and analysis for safer highways (CRASH) prepared by Kentucky State Police shows that in the five-year period between Jan. 1, 2000 and Dec. 22, 2005, there were 39 collisions between the 16 and 17-mile-markers, injuring 22 people and killing one.
The State put up guardrails along Enlow’s Curve a few years ago and that appears to have decreased the number of serious crashes at that site.
Bardstown Road is definitely narrow and curvy – but that isn’t the only reason so many collisions occur there.
It’s considered a high-traffic area with an estimated 7,000 vehicles per day traveling U.S. 31-E beginning at Lincoln Square in Hodgenville and going toward Bardstown. In the area near Lincoln’s Boyhood Home, the latest figures show that 2,008 vehicles are utilizing the road daily.
Another factor is speed.
The straight shoots of roadway have a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Knob Creek and Enlow’s Curve are designed for speeds of 40 miles per hour; Devers Curve is designed for 35 miles per hour.
Drivers seem to ignore the speed limit signs, said Devers. He had hoped that once the Boyhood Home became part of the National Park Service in 2001, the speed limit would be lowered on Bardstown Road so tourists would have more warning of the dangers.
But, as Devers noted, most of the people who are involved in the crashes are local. It is rare that an out-of-towner has an accident near his farm.
B.J. Enlow, who has lived since 1986 on Enlow’s Curve, has seen numerous wrecks in the area. Many vehicles end up in the field across from her home, in the small creek (a tributary of Knob Creek) in the field or resting against an embankment to the right of her house.
“People just get in a hurry,” Enlow said. “People just drive too fast in that area.”
Her husband Robert also has witnessed numerous crashes while working on the farm. He’s also repaired many fences after they’ve been damaged by vehicles – some speeding, others just unlucky.
He said he has moved cattle from one of the fields in the construction zone and is looking forward to the work being completed.
Once the National Park Service became involved in the project, more studies were needed before construction could commence.
Analysis revealed several deficiencies:
Along the route there are several locations with sharp drops within a few feet of the shoulder reducing the “clear-zone” to four-feet. The AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) Roadside Design Guide recommends a minimum clear zone of 20-feet for a design speed of 45 miles per hour and 24-feet for a design speed of 55 miles per hour.
Culverts also are near the edge of the roadway.
The team noted also that parts of the roadway need to be protected from erosion from Knob Creek. A concrete retaining wall will prevent the roadbed from eroding.
Devers said the road in front of his house would be moved. There will still be a curve but it will be a gentle, sloping one.
He gave up a little land, but none of the barns that have been a landmark on Devers Curve for decades.
“I would gladly give one up to solve the (problem of the) accidents,” he said.
Federal lands – Hands off the bats and pimplebacks
Officials decided against extending the curve away from Boyhood Home. That option would have required several hundred feet of Knob Creek to be relocated. It was determined to produce high environmental damage and cost.
William Justice, superintendent at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park, said the area “is dangerous” and noted that state workers had replaced a guardrail that was damaged earlier this year in a crash.
Jessie said additional measures were required when dealing with federal lands. The state’s right-of-way agents and environmentalists worked with the National Park Service staff to complete the easement process.
There were a number of hoops to jump through as the NPS prepared an extensive report on possible impact to the federally-owned lands.
None of the historic sites were endangered but studies on wildlife and fauna slowed the process.
Agencies that offered input include U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kentucky Heritage Council and National Park Service.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires federal actions to consider the effects on species listed as endangered or threatened. KYTC biologists studied the possible impact on the Indiana bat and gray bat.
The construction will remove 3.29 acres of potential roosting habitat for the bats. However, the conclusion was that the species will not be affected adversely because there are ample alternative roosts and the current roosts will be removed between Oct. 15 and March 31 – when the bats are not foraging.
The report addressed also three different mussels – fanshell, northern riffleshell and orangefoot pimpleback – that could be in Knob Creek.
The Transportation Department will limit work around the creek between June 1 and Sept. 30 during typically low flow periods to minimize harm to aquatic resources. The overall impact to the mussels was found to be nil.
The researchers documented also that no sacred grounds of Native Americans would be impacted.
The report concluded that air quality would not be affected greatly although there would be a slight increase in pollution during construction. The pollution would be temporary and well within the limits of attainment for LaRue County. No permit will be required from the Kentucky Division of Air Quality.
In the end, the federal report agreed that the “roadway is currently geometrically deficient and the roadbed stability is threatened by streambank erosion. This directly affects visitor safety driving to and from the site.”
The project was given a budget of $2 million for design, relocation of utilities, purchase of right-of-ways and construction.
Reconstruction will begin this fall and conclude next summer. One lane will close during construction.
LaRue County Judge/executive Tommy Turner said he is “very excited that these improvements will be made.”
“The Devers Curve and Enlow Curve represent probably the two most dangerous road locations in LaRue County,” Turner said. “Especially when considering the traffic count and fact they are located on a major US highway. Numerous accidents, tragically resulting in deaths, have occurred at both of these. We’ve urged the state to make improvements in these areas for a number of years and I’m happy they are following through with a project to see them happen.”
A survey of the Knob Creek area was completed by University of Kentucky Program for Archaeological Research during June 2011.
The surveyors did not find any Lincoln era artifacts. A many-paged report noted the shards of glass uncovered in shovel test.
The report said: “Overall, the container glass assemblage suggests consumption of alcohol and discard of alcohol containers along the side of U.S. 31-E. While improvements can be made to the curves along this roadway, an underlying problem represented by the alcohol containers may remain.”
The surveyors found fiberglass automobile body parts in a culvert. “And though these artifacts are not archaeologically significant, they support the need to improve the dangerous conditions along U.S. 31-E.”
Environmental Assessment for granting special use permit to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet for safety improvements to U.S. 31-E
Prepared by Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and National Park Service