Motorists have no room for error if they drive off Airline Highway
Despite numerous attempts by parish officials to resolve the canal's safety issues, the canal continues to be a "death trap" to motorists. In 2003, the canal claimed 7 lives. The exact number of deaths attributed to the canel was not available at press time. Records show that numerous individuals have gone into the canal, barely escaping with their lives.
Three years ago, shortly after the canal took the lives of four St. Rose siblings, the Louisiana Department of Transportation formed a task force to study the situation on Airline Highway. Among the people involved were Sheriff Greg Champagne, Parish President Albert Laque, representatives of the state police, DOTD and Federal Highway Administration and State Representative Gary Smith.
Because Airline Drive is also U.S. Highway 61, a federal highway, the parish has no power to make renovations to the area on its own and therefore is forced to deal with the issues on a state level.
The task force compiled data on conditions of the vehicles and drivers, the condition of the roadway and the types of collisions and police reports.
With a highway shoulder that is almost non-existent, motorists have little room for error. In the years that have followed, every attempt to construct a guard rail system by parish officials has failed. Parish officials believe that leaving the canal unrestricted is inviting more accidents which will claim additional lives.
“The task force did a thorough investigation. They ultimately found that a guard rail or any deterrent was unwarranted and could cause additional injury. Vehicles traveling at a high rate of speed would bounce off the guard rail and enter back into traffic,” said State Representative Gary Smith.
Among some of the solutions suggested have been decreasing the speed limit on the highway, additional traffic signals, installing a guard rail that would detour motorists from entering the canal, planting trees to obstruct entrance to the canal, bamboo trees, cement barriers, and cable wires, none of which have been implemented in the area. "It all comes down to dollars and cents," said Councilman Dickie Duhe. He went on to say, "if someone were to conduct a sonar screening at the bottom of the canal, it would be interesting to see just how many vehicles have succumbed to the mucky water that no one knows about. It is probably a grave yard of vehicles."
Councilman Desmond J. Hillaire of District One called for action on the six-mile stretch of Airline Highway. In a letter to Sen. Mary Landrieu dated May 21, 2003, Hillaire recounted the loss of all four Washington siblings, a 27 year old mother and her 3 year old daughter and the death of a 17 year old. All of which lost their lives when their vehicles went off the road and into the canal. Hillaire wrote, "The stretch of highway is slowly becoming a death trap." In a letter written by Dr. Kam K. Movassaghi of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, dated March 7, 2003, Dr. Movassaghi wrote that a review of the area turned up ONLY five crashes from 1999 through October of 2002, and of these, none were fatal.
“It continues to be an issue that I plan to pursue. While the stretch of road may not be a high priority for state officials, given that many of the highways in Louisiana are bordered by water and have more frequent accidents, it remains a safety concern for the citizens of St. Charles Parish,” said State Representative Gary Smith. “The state has eliminated all but the necessary turning lanes on Airline, re-striped the highway and put up distinct markings. But no steps have been made to establish a guard rail along the highway,” he went on to say.
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