Despite accidents, trucks will still roll on Dalton road

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DALTON — If it turned out he had to deliver disappointing news, Police Chief Jeffrey Coe wanted to be ready.

That prompted him to spend hours on Washington Mountain Road late this summer, as a study collected data on the volume of truck traffic through the last populated stretch of the road, before it climbs south into Washington forests.

"I wanted firsthand knowledge so I could look everyone in the eye and tell them a true opinion," Coe said.

That verdict came this week, when Coe and a former chief told the Select Board that despite requests from residents following a single-vehicle crash Nov. 21 at a bend in the road, circumstances do not support imposing either a truck ban or lowering a 40-mph speed limit.

Trucks represented about 3 percent of what a Tri-State Traffic Data crew counted on the road in two tests in late August. Those counts recorded traffic volume of roughly 1,430 vehicles a day.

And vehicle speeds fell within ranges considered normal by the state Department of Transportation, according to a report by the Dalton Traffic Commission.

The Select Board accepted that finding, but took steps toward placing a solar-powered sign on a Washington section of the road cautioning northbound drivers about the steep decline ahead.

Daniel D. Filiault, a former Dalton police chief who is chair of the traffic commission, presented a two-page report on steps taken since January to study the truck ban and road speed issues.

Even if Dalton had backed changes in allowed road use, its neighbors to the south stood opposed to a ban. Coe said all towns through which a road travels must agree on a ban.

William Elovirta and Michael Lavery, the chair and vice chair of Becket's Select Board, came Tuesday night to Dalton Town Hall to explain their opposition to a ban.

Elovirta said he has long traveled Washington Mountain Road and believes speeding is more of an issue in Washington, where the road is relatively flat and straight, than in Dalton. He also downplayed a concern residents had raised about noise from "jake" brakes, a system that temporarily cuts diesel fuel and uses engine compression to slow vehicles.

"Probably people don't like the jake brakes, but it saves their brakes," Elovirta said of truck drivers.

The traffic commission had asked the Board of Health to study noise from jake brakes in the area, but that panel declined, Filiault said, because intermittent noise does not violate town bylaws.

The count on truck traffic may represent normal levels, Filiault's report said, because an Eversource construction project was active at the time of the accident.

"It was an anomaly," Filiault said of truck traffic at the time.

Even in cases were a truck ban is imposed, laws still allow such vehicles to travel affected roads to reach specific local destinations.

A few years ago, Dalton considered a ban on nearby Kirchner Road, which runs southeast through Washington into Hinsdale. That effort also came up short.

The crash

In the November crash, a truck driven by an Otis man lost its brakes at the final turn coming into Dalton on Washington Mountain Road. It was pulling a trailer carrying an excavator, which rolled off. The impact tore the "dump body" from the truck and caused the trailer to jackknife.

Lucas Perry, the officer who investigated, said the truck's brake system was smoking when he arrived.

The driver following the truck down the hill told police he could smell the brakes and heard the driver, Christopher Chaffee, downshifting in a failed effort to slow the truck.

Chaffee told police a warning light came on as he descended the hill. As the truck lost air pressure, its pneumatic brakes began to fail. Chaffee said the brake pedal went all the way to the floor and he braced for a crash. He was not seriously injured.

Today, a new section of guardrail protects the home and yard at 398 Washington Mountain Road. The area is close to where the route connects with the south end of Dalton Division Road.

`Passionate' views

Filiault's commission also explored whether culverts underneath Washington Mountain Road need to be posted for weight limits. The DOT looked at culverts on Hathaway and Sackett brooks and declined to impose limits.

Though town of Washington officials declined to support a truck ban, they did tell Filiault and Town Manager Ken Walto they would allow Dalton to place a sign warning travelers. The location of that sign is still being pinned down, Filiault said. Funding for the sign was approved by Dalton officials this spring; the device will be installed by Dalton's highway department.

Coe said he sympathizes with residents' concerns and acknowledged that Washington Mountain Road is the first to freeze in town. The department routinely sends cruisers up the hill to check conditions in winter weather, reporting back to the highway crew.

"That's the telltale sign when the weather is switching over," Coe said of Washington Mountain Road.

The chief said his officers continue to travel the area, monitoring speeds.

"We do have a presence out there," Coe told officials Tuesday. In a later interview, he said he understood residents' concerns. "I was inspired that they got together and were passionate about it," Coe said.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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