A July 25 crash killed a couple from Eustis, Florida and seriously injured a trooper with the N.C. Highway Patrol. Since this terrible accident, there has been a lot of talk about the dangers of traveling on U.S. 23/74 through Balsam.
The investigation is ongoing. We don’t know what caused the fatal crash.
What we do know is this: Robert Lee Nelson, 84, was driving a small recreational vehicle. He made a legal U-turn from the eastbound side of the roadway, near the new rest area.
Meanwhile, Trooper Hunter Hooper was westbound in pursuit of a different motorist. His patrol car’s blue lights and siren were activated, according to officials.
Trooper Hooper crashed into the couple’s vehicle. Nelson and his wife, Esther Matilda, 82, died at the scene.
U.S. 23/74 serves as the major travel corridor to and from North Carolina’s six westernmost counties. Courtesy of the newsroom’s police scanner, we frequently hear county dispatchers sending emergency responders to accidents on the Jackson County side of the Balsams.
We figured the dangers must be even greater in more-populated Haywood County.
Motorists have a straight shot on that side of the Balsams, fewer curves than in Jackson County. This seems to encourage speeding, and there are those drivers who motor through in excess of the posted 55-miles-per-hour limit.
More vehicles are entering and exiting the highway in Haywood, thanks to the Blue Ridge Parkway, two rest areas, several side roads and various businesses.
The Herald staff has firsthand knowledge about wrecks in that area.
Three years ago, one of our advertising representatives crashed near where the Florida couple died.
She was traveling east. A driver pulled out of the rest area into her car’s path, first forcing her vehicle into the travel lane, then crashing into it. She and her husband emerged shaken, but uninjured. Afterwards, the at-fault driver explained he hadn’t seen her car approaching.
In 2015, a current Herald staffer, near the same place, hit a bear crossing the highway. It ran off, likely having suffered mortal injuries. Our staffer was not hurt. His vehicle was declared a total loss.
A few years ago, the N.C. Department of Transportation reconfigured this portion of U.S. 23/74 using a super street-style design.
The new pattern redirects traffic away from left turns: think the N.C. 116 intersection with U.S. 441 in Jackson County, where drivers no longer directly cross the highway and turn left. Now, motorists turn right off N.C. 116 onto U.S. 441, get into the left lane, then make a U-turn to head south.
We’ve asked the NCDOT for crash numbers on the Balsam portion of U.S. 23/74 in Jackson County. Tallies from Haywood have been provided. Though we found the data counter intuitive, you can’t argue with facts.
Starting at the Jackson-Haywood line and continuing about 2.3 miles to Orion Davis Road, there were 59 wrecks from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2017.
This equals 67.37 crashes only per 100-million vehicle miles, with about 38.3 million cars (21,000 on average each day) counted. Statewide, on comparable byways, the count is 185.84 crashes per 100-million vehicle miles.
U.S. 23/74 had one fatality; 17 injuries; 42 property-damage-only crashes; 13 wrecks at night; five wrecks on wet pavement.
The majority, 21, involved one car rear-ending another. Sideswipes was next, 10 of them, all involving vehicles traveling in the same direction.
Incidentally, the most dangerous time to drive this portion of U.S. 23/74 is 4-5 p.m. on Thursday and Fridays in October.
And the safest is 2-3 a.m., 4-5 a.m., or 11 p.m. to midnight, in March or November, on Wednesdays.
There were no reports of alcohol or drugs having caused any wrecks.
Isn’t it interesting how hard, cold facts can contradict perception?
Quintin Ellison is the editor of The Sylva Herald.