Darlene Harff watches cars zoom through the uncontrolled intersections near her home on Cherry Street in east Baker City, and as she watches, she worries.
Harff estimates that about 90% of drivers she watches don’t slow down, and prepare to yield to traffic to their right as the law requires, as they approach intersections on Cherry.
Harff, whose home is on Cherry Street between Broadway Street and Washington Avenue, said that when the Albertsons grocery store was closed for several months in 2015 and 2016, traffic lessened.
But it has increased since, she said.
“I think we get the traffic because they think it’s the through street from the stores,” Harff said.
Michelle Owen, Baker City’s director of public works, said Cherry Street, although it’s designated as a local street rather than a “collector” street — one designed to carry more traffic — likely attracts more drivers than other north-south streets in the area for the reason Harff cited.
Because Cherry is about midway between the two north-south collector streets in the area — Clark and Birch — drivers heading to or from the Baker Towne Square and Safeway might be more likely to use Cherry, Owen said.
She said the city doesn’t have any traffic counts from streets in the area.
Harff said she saw drivers going around “road closed” signs on Washington during a repaving project this summer — some of whom even stopped to move the signs.
“The whole time this road was supposed to be closed, they were flying down here like crazy,” Harff said.“I’m like, this is insane.”
Harff, who moved to Baker City from Minneapolis seven years ago, said she had contacted Baker City with her concerns.
She said her residential neighborhood in Minneapolis had stop signs every other block.
“So, you couldn’t go more than a couple of blocks without stopping,” she said.
Harff said she has even seen people drive through stop signs in Baker City. She has also heard from people all over town that inattentive drivers, especially at uncontrolled intersections, are “a real, real problem.”
About half of Baker City’s intersections are uncontrolled, most of those in residential areas that don’t have collector streets.
She said that on some Saturday nights it sounds like a race track as drivers speed down Cherry Street.
“My neighbor on the other side of the block, she says a lot of them over there don’t even stop at the stop sign (at Balm and Washington),” Harff said. “And some guy came flying through one night and he lost control of his car and he smashed into the neighbor across the street’s garbage can.”
Harff said she has traveled all over the country, visiting 48 states, and across Canada.
“I’ve been in a lot of big cities, little cities. I’ve never seen anything like the way they go flying through it. It’s just crazy,” Harff said. “It’s just worrisome. There’s been so many near accidents on the intersection and all we asked for was a stop sign. One stop sign to slow them down between Campbell to Washington.”
She said cars parked at the curb, on the blocks of Cherry Street between Campbell and Washington, can make it difficult for drivers to see other traffic.
“I’ve heard from so many people who have lived here their whole lives that it’s getting worse and I don’t know if it’s because people are moving here from some of the bigger cities or if it’s just because nobody’s getting stopped,” Harff said.
Owen said she is pondering the possibility of making the intersection of Cherry and Church streets — about midway between Campbell and Washington — a four-way stop.
The reason, Owen said, is not because traffic volumes or speeds justify the stop signs, but because of “sight distance issues.” These can include the parked cars Harff mentioned, as well as mature trees, fences and other structures that could impede drivers’ views at intersections.
Owen said a Baker City Police officer watched that intersection for a brief time this summer. The average speed of the 15 cars that passed was 22 mph, Owen said. The officer stopped one driver for excessive speed, she said.
Neither statistic justifies a stop sign, even a two-way, at the intersection by traffic engineering standards, Owen said.
But the sight distance issue might warrant stop signs on both Cherry and Church streets at that intersection, she said.
The city doesn’t have crash data for Cherry Street or for other residential areas.
The Oregon Department of Transportation counts traffic accidents only on sections of streets, such as 10th, and sections of Broadway, Main and Campbell, that are also state highways.
Harff contends that city officials should consider how people are driving, and not just statistics.
“Somebody said they have some kind of traffic engineer that has all these things that they figure out, statistics or something, and that doesn’t do any good,” she said. “Why don’t you come out and sit and watch it? And nobody wants to do that. They just are sitting there going, ‘oh, well we can’t stop the traffic.’ It takes five to 10 seconds to stop at a stop sign. That’s not much to possibly save somebody’s life.”
Harff said she is concerned about the kids going to and from Brooklyn Primary School, on Washington between Clark and Oak streets. She said there are two day cares on her block as well.
“All it takes is somebody throwing a ball and a kid flying out in front of it,” Harff said.
“The city needs to actually stop and think,” she said. “What I hear from so many people is, Baker City, they don’t want to do anything or change anything in the city. Everything stays the same for eternity here. I still think the biggest thing is there’s not enough traffic to affect the flow of traffic on these side streets. So there’s no reason not to put some stop signs up. I’d rather save a person’s life than care about a car having to stop at a stop sign.”
Owen said she understands why residents believe stop signs would reduce the likelihood of crashes.
Although the city doesn’t have detailed statistics, Owen said that based on police reports historically, crashes are more common at controlled intersections — those with stop signs or signals — than at uncontrolled intersections.
She said that’s to be expected, considering traffic volumes are lower, and often much lower, at uncontrolled intersections — one of the main reasons they lack stop signs. But Owen said another factor contributing to the relatively low crash rate is that some drivers — though unfortunately not all, she concedes — drive more cautiously on streets with uncontrolled intersections because they recognize there are no stop signs and they must yield to traffic on the right.
Installing stop signs at intersections with relatively low traffic volumes can potentially have the opposite of the intended effect, Owen said, as some drivers might go faster, between stop signs, than they would if they were driving through a series of uncontrolled intersections.
She agrees with Harff that drivers need to drive cautiously on streets with uncontrolled intersections.
“This is a good opportunity, I would think, to remind people to yield,” Owen said.
She said she’s looking at making the intersection of Washington and Clark, just west of Brooklyn Primary, a four-way stop rather than the current two-way, with stop signs on Clark but not on Washington.
The goal there is to potentially reduce the risk to students and other pedestrians at the school, Owen said.
Jayson Jacoby contributed to this story.