Lookout Mountain Residents Discuss Improving Safety On Ochs Highway After Multiple Fatal Accidents

Thursday, September 12, 2019 - by Gail Perry

Residents of the towns of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee and Georgia who use the road most, came together for a community meeting to share ideas about making Ochs Highways safer. In the past two years, the community has lost two residents in wrecks on Ochs Highway. There was a fatal truck wreck nine years ago and a biking fatality several years earlier. There have been seven fatal accidents on Ochs in the last 10 years, said Millie Rawlings. What cannot be shown is how many times there have almost been bad accidents said Will Newberry.


Ochs Highway was built in the 1930s and is not suitable for truck and bus traffic that has now become frequent.

The tour buses have gotten larger and are on the mountain more often than in the past. The road has at least three big curves that are difficult for large vehicles to maneuver, said Lookout Mountain, Ga. Mayor David Bennett. The problem is really not the length of the vehicle, said Mark Caldwell, but the length between the front and back axils. Some just cannot not physically make the turns causing them to cross the middle lines. This is breaking a basic law, said Karen Breitenbucher. Large trucks were involved in both of the fatal wrecks in the past two years. 


Slippery pavement, unstable trees falling, vegetation that obscures lines of sight, drainage issues, cyclists on the narrow, curvy roads, parking in areas that are designated as pull off spaces, the large curve at the bottom of the road and GPS devices that direct large trucks up the mountain are other factors that contribute to making the road dangerous. 


The first suggestion is to use a different mix of asphalt that provides better traction and to put a non-skid coating over the surface. This has been used successfully on other curvy mountain roads in Tennessee. In the days leading up to the fatal wreck on Aug. 26, there were four other pile-ups in the same area, close to the bottom of road. Two of them involved fallen trees and cars being unable to stop because of slick roads. Clare Kent whose car was totaled in one of the wrecks on August 25, said the day was misty and the week before, Chattanooga had been clearing out gullies along the two-lane road. She said it is possible that oil could have been leaking from some of the trucks or equipment being used that caused slick spots. Another speaker suggested that roads be cleaned after work is done, or on a regular basis, to clear off oil.


The water company had also been doing work in the same area in the weeks before and had covered road cuts with large, slick metal plates. If those are used in the future, she suggested giving them texture to create friction. 


Another idea that came from a Georgia police officer, was to put rumble strips at the dangerous curves to call attention to them. Ideally the bad curves would be widened and the large one at the foot would be straightened out although it was generally recognized these solutions may be unrealistic.  


Things have changed since the road was built and drainage is poor in some places. This is especially dangerous in cold weather because ice forms where water runs over the road. Engineers could possibly improve drainage by adding pipes or other methods that could redirect runoff said another resident. 


Improving line of sight by clearing areas adjacent to the road at curves would allow cars approaching each other to be aware of what is coming toward them. Kudzu removal is already scheduled on property near the bottom curve. Removing trees that lean over the road was another suggestion. One resident had witnessed a tree falling through a windshield in front of her and fallen trees in the road were involved in the series of crashes on August 25-26.


Some of the responsibility also falls to people who drive inappropriately for the conditions, said Mr. Caldwell. Speeding is seen as a big problem going up and down the mountain as well as when cars reach the top. How to monitor and enforce speed is also a problem because it is dangerous for police to park along the narrow roads, and dangerous to stop a car for both the driver and the officer. Speed cameras could be one solution for issuing tickets.  


Signage used to get the attention of drivers and warn of speed limits and dangerous areas is expected to be an effective method. Walker Jones, mayor of Lookout Mountain, Tn. recommended placing oversized, blinking signs at both the top and bottom to alert large vehicles of dangers on the road. With technology directing oversized vehicles up the mountain, signs there could re-direct the large trucks and buses. Other signs along the road could be used to warn of specific dangers. Commercial operators are responsible for determining routes and knowing road capabilities, noted Mr. Caldwell.


Although it would take longer, those vehicles could use Burkhalter Gap Road accessed from I-59 and through Trenton. That road built in the 1970’s is better equipped to handle them. Another resident made the suggestion of directing them to go up Ochs and down Scenic. This is perceived to be a safer route down, however some large trucks may be unable to get under the railroad bridges on Cummings Highway. 


The state has the responsibility of traffic on Ochs which is state owned, but the Lookout Mountain towns have the ability to control what is on their roads, said Mr. Caldwell. That could limit the large vehicles from the top of the mountain. It was suggested that tour buses and huge trucks could transfer passengers and cargo to smaller, more manageable vehicles or people could use The Incline to travel up. In the past, small buses shuttled people around attractions on the mountain, and it was suggested to bring back that service. 


Cyclists also pose a danger for themselves and cars. The state law requires motorists to give them a three-foot clearance, said Mayor Jones. Mr. Newberry said he has seen close head on collisions multiple times, caused by cars trying to get around bicycles. He suggested limiting bikes to certain times of the day when the road is used by fewer cars. 


Communication with the state of Tennessee and Georgia through the districts’ senators and representatives is seen as imperative since the road is controlled by the states and someone with power is needed to spur action. Partnerships and cooperation will also be needed with the towns, Rock City, Ruby Falls and The Incline. And utilities who need to work on and around the road need to recognize the special conditions and needs presented by the narrow two-lane curvy road. Communication with tech services such as Google and other mapping and GPS services, in order to alter their directions to a safer route, will be important. 


The next step will be to create a task force and ask people to work on their areas of special interest, focusing on realistic solutions. Because Ochs Highway, from the state line to St. Elmo is scheduled for repaving in the near future, now is the time to have the discussions with everyone involved. The community would rather postpone the resurfacing until it can be done in the safest way possible. 


Updates on creating a safer road will be posted and publicized in multiple locations so it will be available to those who are interested. Information will be posted on Mark Caldwell’s email list, Nextdoor, Lookout Mountain’s Facebook page, The Chattanoogan.com and The Lookout Mountain Mirror. 






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