'Hill-Hopping' Blamed for Tragedy

'Hill-Hopping' Blamed for Tragedy

August 8, 2002

Friends of the teen-agers riding in a car that crashed last week on Bennett Road — killing the front-seat passenger and seriously injuring another — say they weren't hill-hopping, just driving too fast.

But the long-beleaguered residents of the Oak Hill community where the tragedy occurred don't believe it for a minute. They say Bennett Road where it crests at Rayjon Lane is notorious — drawing teens from all over Fairfax County to speed over it for the "thrill" of being airborne.

"It's been going on for 20-some years," said Judy Ondrejko of Rayjon Lane. "It's a known hill-hopping place, and it happens dozens of times every week. But it's a blind intersection, and there have been serious accidents going back as far as 15 years."

Carol Reese, who's lived there 23 years — and whose driveway is at the top of the hill — said teens crashing there often end up injured. Said Reese: "When we first moved here, I kept a grocery bag full of rags to give to them [to stop the bleeding]."

And through the years, she said, things have gotten "much worse" and the hill-hoppers have become more brazen — frequently operating in pairs. "They usually send a lead car, and a kid gets out with a video camera and lays on his belly in the roadway and videotapes how high they clear," she said. "Some of them even have walkie-talkies. They'll say, 'OK, it's clear,' and then they'll come barreling through."

Although no one was killed hill-hopping until last week, Reese said it was a miracle that anyone walked away from a crash there in 1998. "A car full of kids from Oakton High jumped the hill, and the car hit a school bus from Navy Elementary," she said. The car was engulfed in flames but, somehow, the girls inside managed to escape — although they were badly injured.

"This hill is known as 'Dead Man's Hill,' and the kids do this as a sport," said Reese. "But [last week's fatal accident] is just such a tragedy; I heard the kids screaming in the car. After the bus incident, the police said there was nothing they could do [about the hill] until there was a fatality — now there is."

Although Bennett Road's speed limit is 35 mph, she said it's not unusual for teens to fly over it at 80 mph and be proud of doing so. "The hill is infamous, and the kids think they're invincible," she said. "They just don't think."

Ondrejko said area teens know about all the previous accidents, but it doesn't stop them: "You can tell when school lets out because, at 2:30-3 p.m., each day, you can hear them hill-hopping."

Reese's husband, Del. Gary Reese (R-67th), was on their back porch last Wednesday, July 31, when the car containing four Chantilly High students jumped the hill. "I heard them rev their motor, and I heard the tires leave the surface [of the road]," he said. "I've heard it so many times. Every May, June and July, like clockwork, it's a rite of passage — the kids tell each other, 'You've got to go to Bennett hill.'"

He said he's often gone outside at 2 a.m. "to try to stop those idiots," and he suspects they have lookouts because, within a few minutes of his calling the police about them, the teens have vanished. Marie G. Potter, who lives across from the tree where the four teens crashed last week, said that, in spring and summer, hill-hopping there is a "regular event."

"They're looking for a thrill," she explained. "It's known among the high-schoolers as the best hill if you want to go airborne. We hear them hit ground and metal; hubcaps or pieces of a car go flying."

Ondrejko said she's also seen teens lying on the grass, measuring how high their buddies are jumping in their cars. It happens late at night and also in broad daylight. About five months ago, Ondrejko and her husband were coming home from church, on a Sunday morning when, out of the blue, came a flying car.

"As we were approaching our street, two young ladies, 16 or 17, were airborne on Bennett, coming right at us," she said. Luckily, the girls stayed in their lane and didn't collide with the Ondrejkos' vehicle. But, she said, she warned them that, next time, they might crash, head-on, into a van full of children.

Last week's accident, she said, is "not an isolated incident" and people should know the hazards of hill-hopping. "Although it was tragic, it could be even worse, she said: "The airborne car could land on a car coming uphill and wipe out a whole carload of people."

Gary Reese said the neighbors have fought unsuccessfully with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) for years to come and do something about the hill. He said VDOT's answer to both himself and Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) has always been, "Nobody's died."

The day after last week's fatality, Reese again called VDOT and, this time, its chief engineer came and looked at the hill and spoke with Frey. Reese and Frey also met Tuesday afternoon to discuss how best to obtain community input on what should be done about the hill. They plan to call a community meeting soon to create a task force of residents, VDOT and public-safety members to develop possible solutions.

Reese said adult, rush-hour commuters also cause problems for Bennett. "West Ox [Road] gets backed up, so people turn onto Bennett to cross over to Fox Mill [Road] and then pick up West Ox again or go to Route 50," he explained. "They're not happy about it and they put pedal to the metal and speed. But Bennett Road was never meant to carry this many people."

A good solution, he said, would be to enlarge West Ox to four lanes and cut down the hill at Bennett and Rayjon by 30 feet. But since doing so would shift the problem to another hill, he believes that Bennett's traffic must be slowed to prevent hill-jumping. And he noted that paramedics responding to the fatal crash told him that they almost lost control of their vehicles en route to the scene because Bennett is so steep and curvy.

Potter suggested that the knoll leading to the Bennett/Rayjon hill should also be "kind of leveled out so it's a gradual incline, instead of a steep crest." Even without the hill-hoppers, it's dangerous, she said.

"There's a blind spot at the crest of Bennett with Rayjon, so a lot of people who live on Rayjon — turning left onto their street or left onto Bennett — get hit," she said. "And people turning left onto Rayjon from Bennett have to go over the crest of the hill first, before turning, so oncoming cars can see them."

Carol Reese said VDOT could put a traffic light at the end of her driveway — "Anything to stop [a fatality] from ever happening again." Friends of the 16-year-old killed last week have placed flowers, a cross and mementos on the tree where the car crashed. And, said Reese, "I hope kids come in droves to see what can happen when they act foolishly."

Her husband said his heart goes out to the victim's family. And if something is finally done about the hill, he said, "At least some smattering of good will come out of this horrible tragedy."