For years, thrill-seeking Fairfax County teens have known that Bennett Road where it crests at Rayjohn Lane in Oak Hill is the place for hill-hopping — speeding up and sending their cars airborne.
Neighbors who complained to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) were told that nothing could be done about it — after all, no one had died, yet. But after a teen-ager lost his life in a crash there last summer, VDOT has made several changes to that intersection and plans more.
The tragedy occurred July 31, when a car full of Chantilly High students, traveling at high speed, jumped the hill and the driver lost control and smashed into a tree. All four boys in the car were injured, and the front-seat passenger — 16-year-old Brian Hoskinson of Hampton Chase — was killed.
Marie G. Potter, who lives across the street from the crash site, rushed outside after hearing the accident. "[The car] skidded sideways, so the passenger side took the full impact of the tree, and the roof caved in on top of [Hoskinson]," she said. "The car was totally crushed — I'm surprised they all weren't killed."
Although the speed limit there was 35 mph, neighbors said it wasn't unusual for teens — believing they were invincible — to proudly zoom over the hill at 80 mph. Often, a second car followed, with friends videotaping the event and measuring how high off the ground the first car got.
Del. Gary Reese (R-67th) has lived there 23 years, and his driveway is at the top of the hill. And when he and his wife Carol first moved there, so many teens were injured in hill-hopping crashes that she kept a bag full of rags handy to stop their bleeding.
But after July's fatality, fed-up and outraged neighbors clamored for VDOT to finally take action. Gary Reese called VDOT and met with its chief engineer and Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), and a community meeting was held, Aug. 21, to come up with ways to make Bennett Road and Rayjohn Lane safer. The residents' suggestions and VDOT's response to each one (see *) are listed below:
1. Extend the center line on Bennett to the crest of the hill at Rayjohn. * Center line has been extended.
2. Block off the right-turn lane on Bennett at Rayjohn. * This has now been done.
3. Review sight distance at all state-controlled intersections along Bennett. * All intersections meet sight-distance requirements for the 35-mph speed limit on Bennett.
4. Update the "School Bus Stop Ahead" signs to the strong, yellow-green color. * This has been done.
5. Review the need for blinking warning signs along Bennett. * Most crashes are occurring at the Rayjohn intersection due to vehicles cutting short the turn into Rayjohn. The addition of a sign island and the extension of the center line should improve this intersection's safety. No other locations along Bennett were found to be in need of enhanced warning signs.
6. Review speed-limit signs along Bennett for visibility. * Review was completed; all such signs are visible to traffic.
7. Examine the road shoulders; many drop-offs exist. * These spots were identified, and VDOT is in the process of pulling up the shoulders to the grade of the roadway surface.
8. Restrict through-trucks on Bennett. * No action was taken; the Fairfax County Department of Transportation (FDOT) said the truck volume there doesn't support such a restriction.
9. Construct a roundabout at the intersection of Bennett and Rayjohn. * VDOT didn't recommend doing so. Significant right-of-way would be needed, and the steep-approach grades of Bennett (15 percent and 10 percent) exceed the recommended guidelines of less than 4-percent approach grades. And because of low traffic-volume on Rayjohn, through traffic may not realize the need to yield within the roundabout.
10. Relocate existing warning sign on westbound Bennett, west of Rayjohn. * This has now been done.
11. Conduct a speed study on Bennett. * The study determined that 35 mph is appropriate.
12. Install maximum safe-speed signs on Bennett for the hill at Rayjohn. * 25 mph maximum safe-speed signs have been installed.
13. Install a street light on Bennett at Rayjohn. * Fairfax County is addressing this issue.
14. Implement traffic-calming on Bennett. * FDOT said this road is not eligible for such a measure because its speed limit is more than 25 mph and its geometrics are not conducive for traffic-calming.
15. Survey Bennett at Rayjohn to determine the cost, including utility work, of reducing the hill. * VDOT completed a preliminary design concept to discourage hill-hoppers at the Bennett/Rayjohn intersection. Its concept calls for a 20-mph minimal design speed that flattens out the existing vertical curve at Rayjohn.
But it doesn't address any issues beyond this curve. The cost to flatten the curve was estimated at $250,000, with utility work costing $150,000 — for a total of $400,000. In addition, Bennett would have to be closed for three or more months while this project was being done. And most of all, the county would have to find and allocate the money for it.
16. Relocate the bus stop on Bennett, west of Rayjohn. * This suggestion was sent, Aug. 23, to the county school system's Safety Office and VDOT hadn't heard about it further.
17. Install a sign island on Rayjohn at Bennett. * This has been done.
18. On Bennett turning from West Ox, the speed-limit sign is incorrectly placed (just prior to the curve warning-sign). * VDOT checked it out and determined the sign is placed correctly.
19. Install rumble strips on Bennett at Rayjohn. * Rumble strips may not have a positive effect on reducing vehicle speeds. They typically serve as a supplemental warning of a change in the roadway alignment. VDOT would need support from Frey's and Del. Reese's offices and from the residents who'd be affected by the rumble strips' noise.
Concurrence from police and fire-and-rescue is also needed. Possible locations have been identified at 200 feet and 125 feet before the Rayjohn intersection. Reese would have to contact the affected residents and tell VDOT what they think of this idea.
"The problem with rumble strips is they make noise, and this is a heavily traveled road," he said. "I don't think it's a good solution. What will work better is greater [police] patrolling, lights and the speed limit coming down."
In September, VDOT reduced the speed limit from 35 to 25 mph in the stretch of Bennett from Rayjohn toward West Ox and all the way to Fox Mill. Then, said Reese, "If people do 45-50 mph there, it's reckless-driving plus."
In October, an island and a stop sign were installed on Rayjohn. These additions, said Reese, "tend to slow down traffic and also prevent people from cutting the corner of Bennett to get into Rayjohn. When you cut the hill, no one can see you coming — and that's been the number-one cause of accidents." But no more, he said, because the island "forces you to go to the crest of the hill, and then people can see you coming."
He said reducing the hill will just send thrill-seekers back one hill toward West Ox so, instead, he hopes for cameras to snap photos of speeders' license plates and more lighting to illuminate their license tags and faces for the photos. Reese recommends increasing the wattage at an existing light pole and erecting another light pole on the west side of Rayjohn and Bennett. He said it's also good for neighborhood safety.
"I'm pleased that VDOT has done as much as it has," said Reese. "Hopefully, we'll be able to follow this up in the spring and do whatever else we can."