The Georgia Department of Transportation is planning to restripe the passing lane on Hwy. 53 east into Dawsonville between Hugh Stowers Road and Buddy Burt Road to make it safer for drivers navigating the winding roadway.
GDOT plans to remove the passing lane and create a two-way center turn lane in its place.
This portion of the highway is a particular concern for residents, especially the portion known as the “Buddy Burt Road Curve” in front of Dell Conner Construction, where earlier this year an 18-year-old high school student was killed, and where six were seriously injured in a multi-vehicle wreck just last month.
Due to increased public concern, local politicians contacted GDOT to see what could be done to mitigate traffic incidents in the area. In April, state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, requested that GDOT evaluate the passing lane section on Hwy. 53.
In a letter to Tanner dated June 26, District 1 Engineer Brent Cook stated that the District Traffic Operations office had recently completed a review of the passing lane section and “identified several changes and upgrades.”
“These improvements include restriping the passing lane to a two-way center turn lane, restriping the western terminus of the passing lane (Buddy Burt Road curve) to improve the geometry and various improvements to be implemented during the next resurfacing project,” Cook wrote.
Cook also wrote that GDOT will be pursuing a contract to complete the restriping and that the work will be completed by August of this year.
The project to resurface the part of Hwy. 53 that includes the passing lane area is currently in the district’s FY 2020 capital maintenance plan, Cook said.
“The other items included in the resurfacing project include the installation of edge line rumble strips (will alert drivers they are close to leaving the roadway) and a safety edge (a shoulder treatment that lessens the impact of drifting off the pavement),” he wrote.
Tanner is currently the chairman of the state House transportation committee, and said that his concern for the area heightened after Grace Sheer was killed in a single-vehicle crash in February while driving to school.
Tanner said there had been multiple injuries in that curve even back when he was starting out his career in law enforcement in the 1990s. When Sheer was killed, Tanner said he spoke with Spencer Wright, the chorus director at the high school, of which Sheer was a part.
“He call me and talked to me about it, and my daughter was in chamber singers with Grace as well. He pointed out that many of our young people are traveling that road every day. People speed through there and it’s become a racetrack as traffic has continued to increase,” he said.
Tanner thanked GDOT for their attention to his request, despite the heat it may get from some residents who like having the option of passing.
“It’s inconvenient to not be able to pass there but I think in the long run it will make it safer for everyone,” Tanner said. “I commend GDOT for making these improvements.”
The improvements are being praised by those who live and work in the area and witness wrecks in the curve all the time.
District 2 County Commissioner Chris Gaines said he is glad that GDOT is working to address the dangers of the roadway.
“I am passionate about the safety of our roads in Dawson County and this area has proven to be a stretch of road that is very dangerous,” Gaines said. “I commend Tanner for sharing that same passion and to have already been working with GDOT to address this issue. We are fortunate to have him as a leader here in Dawson County.”
Dell Conner, who has worked at his shop, which faces the curve, for the past 22 years, said he thinks the turning lane will significantly decrease the amount of traffic incidents there.
“(The speed limit) is 55 miles an hour, nobody runs 55 miles an hour. If it says 55, we as human beings are going to run about 10 over,” Conner said. “Everybody in Dawson County thinks that they’re Bill Elliott and in the mornings people will race, and they get through that curve and when that lane runs out they’re jockeying for position to see who can get there. If they’ll make that a turning lane that will eliminate that scenario right there.”
Conner said he thinks GDOT could go a step further and decrease the speed from 55 to 45 after Etowah Water and Sewer Authority going east on Hwy. 53, at least until cars get through the curve.
“There might never be another fatality there if they did that,” Conner said. “I really feel confident it will help. I’m tired of these kids getting killed. And now they’ve got that hands free thing too, maybe a combination of all that put together will help save lives in this curve.”
Conner said he believes over a dozen people have been killed in the curve since 1940.
Employees at Dawsonville Veterinary Hospital, which sits on the right side of Hwy. 53 going into Dawsonville, said they are looking forward to the improvements, as they are constantly nearly rear-ended when turning into the hospital.
“I think that’s the best thing they could possibly ever have done, to make that a center turn lane,” said Maggie Pierce, who must cross over the passing lane each morning as she turns left to get to the hospital.
Sandra Adams, another employee, said that she turns right into the hospital and that she has had people go around her on the right when she is slowing down to turn.
“That should make life safer for a lot of people,” Adams said about GDOT’s plans.
Numbers from the Dawson County Sheriff’s office show 20 traffic incidents on that section of road in the past five years, including two fatalities. An Oakwood man was killed in the curve after his tractor-trailer collided with a passenger vehicle in December of 2014.
Sheriff Jeff Johnson said that the conditions in the curve are “ideal” for increased crashes as traffic volumes increase.
“Another real and legitimate issue involves vehicles attempting to turn left from the passing lane,” he said. “Should GDOT convert the passing lane into a turning lane, it would also serve to create safer conditions for those turning into private drives and roadways off of Hwy. 53.”
GDOT could not provide specifics on how they determined the road was in need of improvements, but District 1 Communications Officer Katie Strickland said Tuesday that GDOT is continually evaluating areas such as the one referenced in the letter to Tanner.
“The department evaluated several aspects of roadway including the elevation and the crash frequency/severity,” Strickland said.She also said that she did not have a specific timeline for the improvements yet.