Minor crash forces another round of making Monument high school driveway safer

Flashing lights were added to the entrance of Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington after a crash in 2016. A recent incident has prompted discussions about changing the drop-off point for students as a way to improve safety.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Morning and afternoon, they pull in and out of the high school driveway in what can feel like a gamble with life and limb.

Many, if not most, are teenagers.

Over the years, there have been number of minor crashes at the entrance to Monument Mountain Regional High School on Route 7 — a 35 mph school zone within a highly traveled, two-lane state highway with a 55 mph speed limit.

The intersection is particularly harrowing during the morning rush hour — and dangerous for the police officer who directs traffic to keep the buses on schedule.

So, in the wake of yet another incident last month, school and police officials again are exploring efforts to prevent something more serious — including the possibility of changing the morning drop-off location for parents.

"We've had many meetings over the years," town Police Chief William Walsh told The Eagle after a meeting in the days after the October incident. "It is a dangerous spot. It's dangerous for my officers, even in the best of weather. We've been asking for a real light there for a number of years now."

There have been five crashes at the spot since 2014, according to Massachusetts Department of Transportation data — all with either minor or no injuries.

After a 2016 accident rekindled safety worries, MassDOT reduced the speed limit and installed dynamic speed signs and flashing lights. But, it said the driveway does not meet the crash and volume rate criteria for a light signal.

Instead, the agency recommended creating an internal driveway that would shunt south-turning cars out to Monument Valley Road. But, estimates from school officials at the time pegged costs in the $500,000 to $1 million range — with no state funding.

The latest crash came in late October, when a young driver heading south and trying to turn left into the high school hit a northbound vehicle. There were no injuries or citations, Walsh said.

The incident prompted school, local and state officials to gather again to brainstorm ways to make the intersection safer, particularly where many drivers are young and inexperienced.

After the most recent accident, Sgt. Paul Storti and other officials, including two state lawmakers, devised a proposal that would have parents drop off children at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School next door on Monument Valley Road, and maintain a path for students to walk up the hill to the high school. Parents then would loop around to a traffic signal on that road, which intersects with Route 7.

Walsh said that police have advocated for this shift for the past couple of years.

Schools Superintendent Peter Dillon said the plans now in development are premature, but he acknowledged that such a change would divert parents away from the dicey intersection.

He said that while the district can't afford to build a new driveway now, something safer will be included in the proposed renovation or rebuild of the high school, set to be completed by 2023, if those plans progress.

DOT spokeswoman Judith Riley said in an email this month that the agency is communicating with the district and that it "takes this issue very seriously, and has worked over the past several years to make identified safety improvements to this location."

Riley said these also have included widening the road and adding islands. She also said that the DOT follows federal guidelines for what data warrants a signal.

Select Board Vice Chairman Ed Abrahams has expressed fears about the intersection for years. He recalls that one of his daughters learned to drive by negotiating the notorious intersection on her way to school. But he says he also worries about the Great Barrington and Stockbridge police officers who stand there in the morning and afternoon.

"What terrifies me almost more than the students making the turn is a police officer standing in the middle of the road," Abrahams said.

"We're like a human traffic light," Walsh noted.

But Walsh also said that areas where teen drivers congregate will always be a challenge.

"Nobody's going to stop that," he said. "That's driver inexperience."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.