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Brake lights, sharp turns, and sudden stops on Bucks County's crash-prone Street Road

The 1900 stretch of Street Road at the intersection of Hulmeville Road in Bensalem, PA, January 19, 2017.
The 1900 stretch of Street Road at the intersection of Hulmeville Road in Bensalem, PA, January 19, 2017.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

There's probably a Street Road in your town.

Where you live it's called something else, but you've driven these miles of mismatched commerce -- Kohls, Kmart, and Golden Corral sharing a streetscape with motels, churches, and family businesses ensconced in old converted houses.

These roads also can make for hazardous driving. Of the 50 locations in the five-county region with the highest concentration of car crashes in 2015, four were on the stretch of Street Road in Bensalem bracketed by I-95 and Route 1.

Click here for map of Street Road crashes.

The less-than-four-mile stretch in Bucks County, which carries about 34,000 cars daily, averaged 153 crashes a year from 2000 to 2015, according to the most recent PennDot data. Two people died in traffic incidents there in 2016. Another two died the year before, and two more the year before that. In 2014 Time magazine named the intersection of Street Road and Knights Road the most dangerous in the country. Officials disputed the ranking but agree the road is among the more troubled in the region.

Whether $3.8 million invested by PennDot in Street Road since 2015 will make a difference is an open question. The changes fall short of all the recommendations in a 2008 Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission report, but engineers believe the application of smart technology may hint at how to make these bustling, aging roads less of a hazard for cars and people.

About 70 years ago, Street Road passed by acres of fertile land and farmhouses, said Joseph DiGirolamo, Bensalem's mayor.

"There were hog farms and some chicken farms, but most of it was all produce," he said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940, and the next decade brought I-95. Access meant opportunity. DiGirolamo described gas stations, restaurants, and, later, apartments being built. Development was fast, uncoordinated, and largely unconstrained by zoning laws, not atypical for the time.

"Early on people didn't know the impacts of having individual driveways 30 feet from each other," said John Ward, deputy executive director for the DVRPC. "Maybe traffic volumes were lower, and it didn't seem to be as much of a problem."

Today's problems on the road, four lanes of travel with a median turn lane, are largely outgrowths of the original design characteristics.

Drivers use the road both as a thruway and as a destination to its businesses, Ward said, including traffic to Parx Casino, pitting faster vehicles against cars slowing and turning.

The lack of an overarching development plan led to a road bristling with driveways and cross streets. Cars stop abruptly to make sudden turns, or swing across lanes of travel to make lefts out of businesses.

No surprise, engineers said, that the most common accidents on Street Road are rear-end strikes and angle hits. Of the 1,214 crashes recorded from 2008 to 2015 by PennDot, almost 77 percent were those two kinds of crashes.

The crazy-quilt development also means no contiguous sidewalks. People on foot frequently end up in the road's narrow shoulders, and disaster results. In 2015, 42 pedestrians were hit on the road.

Bensalem's director of public safety, Fred Harran, said drivers play a role in making the road unsafe.

"Turning in front of each other, trying to beat the light," he said, "if these things stopped, the accidents would be cut down considerably."

At the intersection of Knights Road and Street, the one Time labeled America's most dangerous, Dr. Umar Farooq has an office, and a standing order for staff.

"Any accident happens," he said, "tell me right away so I can go and see if I can help the people."

In 2015 he ran out of Knights Medical Associates, his internal-medicine practice, when a car hit a man on a motorcycle. Injuries were minor, but that year a woman on foot was fatally struck by two cars at the same junction. Farooq has worked for a safer intersection since 2015, when he sent the governor a petition signed by more than 800 asking for improvements there.

Starting in 2015, PennDot put in a concerted effort to improve the road without major reconstruction. The most significant changes included a new traffic light near the junction with I-95, repaving, narrowed lanes to create a larger shoulder near Anne Drive, and signals that allow left turns only on a green arrow at intersections with Hulmeville Road, Mechanicsville Road, and Knights Road. The agency also installed cameras to scan traffic for an adaptive signal system. During rush hours, vehicles back up on I-95 from Street Road, so now traffic signals along the road register the congestion and stay green longer during times of significant congestion.

"In addition to smoother traffic flow, it's a more calming effect," Louis Belmonte, PennDot assistant district executive of services, said. "You get a lot less driver anger and those types of feeling while driving."

Engineers will need several years of data to be clear on the impact of the PennDot changes, Belmonte said. He also warned that on older, densely developed roads there were limits to what could be done.

"It's hard to engineer at the back end something that was done over a long period of time," he said.

Farooq has noticed improvements due to PennDot's work, he said, but an item he highlighted in his 2015 petition that remains undone was the need for sidewalks. The 2008 DVRPC report also noted a need for sidewalks. Apartment complexes in the area, like the Creekside Apartments on Knights Road, the doctor said, have large immigrant populations from India, Africa, Russia, and Spanish-speaking nations, some of them his patients, who rely on walking to get around.

"It's your job to make it safer," Farooq said of township officials. "People have to cross."

The municipality is responsible for sidewalks, but DiGirolamo, the mayor, said that while he agreed there was a need for more protection for pedestrians, and said the township could order it, the cost of putting in sidewalks would fall to property owners. The amount of signage and other obstacles in the right of way, he said, would make adding sidewalks a major undertaking.

"Until new development goes in, I don't see it happening," he said.

Sidewalks most often come with new development, said Lynn Bush, Bucks County Planning Commission director. A township can make owners put in sidewalks on older properties, she said, but it requires legislative action and isn't a popular approach.

Street Road's crash count has remained remarkably consistent over almost 20 years, yet businesses keep investing in the area. A new Chik-fil-A is expected soon. The heavy traffic that brought so much development half a century ago remains a draw.

"I knew I wanted to have a property on Street Road because it's a great location," said Lori Worthington, who owns A Fashionable Flower Boutique.

She has sold flowers out of a yellow house with maroon trim for 12 years, she said, and her two daughters now help out with customers. Her driveway off Street is so sudden and steep your heart stops as you make the turn. Cars have run into her business' sign and the street sign at the corner of Marion Avenue. She isn't eager for a major road project, though.

"It would have to be major reconstruction to change anything," said Sarah Pote, Worthington's daughter, "and that would really put the hurt on."