City launches ‘urgent’ inquiry into Rural/Carver traffic fatality

By Doug Snover

Julie Wilfert spotted the debris as she drove through the intersection of Rural and Carver roads last Friday morning, and it made her feel ill.  Then she saw the people gathered around a wrecked minivan.

Wilfert was on her way to C.I. Waggoner Elementary School, where she planned to volunteer in her child’s classroom for the morning.

Before going to class, however, she began making telephone calls to Tempe City Hall to plead for action on what Wilfert believes is a deceptively dangerous intersection.

“I was taking my kids to school. There had just been an accident there (at Rural and Carver roads) about a week ago that shut down the intersection. We had come into the intersection and I saw the debris . . . I noticed people on the corner. I glanced backward and saw two or three people standing at the minivan,” Wilfert recalls.

“When I got to school, I said ‘That’s it, let’s start calling everybody we know.’ ”

Wilfert did not learn until later in the day Friday that the early-morning accident claimed the life of a local woman, 34-year-old Iesha Alston, who died when her minivan was broadsided on the driver’s side by a preschool van whose driver reportedly ran the stoplight on Rural Road.

Tempe Police spokesman Sgt. Dan Masters said investigators uncovered no evidence of excessive speed or weather problems or that the preschool van’s driver, 20-year-old Holly Tennant, was impaired, he said. 

“Everything points to a red-light violation.”

Wilfert, who lives within a half mile of the Rural-Carver intersection, said there are too many crashes caused by drivers on Rural Road “blowing through red lights” at Carver Road.

A close friend was lucky to survive when she, too, was broadsided in a minivan on Rural Road on the day after Christmas, Wilfert said.

Her theory is that drivers on Rural Road tend to be irritated by the red lights at Carver, which is by no means a major cross street. “They try to push it” and accelerate through the intersection instead of stopping, she said.

“You can see it in the drivers’ eyes. You can tell they think they can make it.”

“We just need to find a way to control the cars going through the intersection somehow. It needs to be done now,” Wilfert said.

She noted that both Waggoner Elementary and Kyrene Middle School are within a quarter mile of the intersection. Many parents who drive their children to those schools use the intersection and many schoolchildren must cross Rural Road at Carver daily, she said.

“I can’t even imagine the kids that are crossing that intersection,” she said. “Let's face it, in rush hour traffic 45 mph means 50-55 mph to most, and the image of 50 mph cars flying past our children just doesn't say ‘school crossing’ to me,” she wrote in an email to Tempe officials.

“This is a call to action to quickly assess and make immediate changes to the intersection at Carver Rd. and Rural,” Wilfert wrote in her email to the city.

“My neighborhood lies west of Rural and feeds into KMS and Waggoner on the east side. We currently have six lanes of traffic blowing through red lights at the light at Carver. This has been going on for months, and records show the number of accidents, including the latest fatality of a mother taking kids to KMS.”

“Many mothers I know in our neighborhood have their own stories of accidents and near misses and would be happy to email their comments, if necessary. Would a mass emailing of comments help speed this up?”

City officials have been responsive to her concerns, Wilfert said. On Tuesday, several motorcycle officers watched over the intersection, she reported.

“Our public works department is working on this issue with a great deal of urgency,” City Manager Will Manley told Wilfert in an email.

Wilfert said she would like the city to install a red-light camera at the intersection to catch violators.  “But it is very unlikely.  They are very expansive and Tempe currently has only two – at Broadway and Southern and Broadway and Rural.”

She also has suggested the city consider:

Parking a photo radar van near the intersection

Reducing the overall speed limit on Rural

Reducing the speed limit to 35 miles per hour in that area for a school crossing area

Having flashing yellow lights prior to the intersection on both sides delineating the crossing area

Placing signs that show the upcoming children/school crossing area

Placing signs that say it is a no red light running intersection “whether we have the camera or not”

Checking landscaping and block walls for blocked view from the west and east sides of Carver

Painting SLOW in neon colors on the streets before the intersection

Tempe police and traffic engineers are looking at the intersection, according to Shelly Seyler, a senior traffic engineer.

So far, city traffic engineers have found nothing unusual about the Rural-Carver intersection that would make it especially dangerous, she said, stressing that the investigation is only in its preliminary stages.

“From a preliminary analysis, we are not seeing anything that stands out,” Seyler said.  “But we will be taking into account that the street (Carver) does lead to a school.”

City records indicate that “approximately 23,000 vehicles on an average day might go through that intersection,” Seyler said.

Accident reports show 12 accidents at Rural and Carver in the past five years, she said.  The city traffic engineering office still is trying to determine how many of those accidents involved red-light violations, but none of the 12 accidents on record involved pedestrians or bicyclists, she said.

The signal timing at Rural and Carver roads is typical of how stoplights are timed throughout the city where smaller “collector” streets like Carver cross major “arterial” streets like Rural, she said.  There is a 1.5 second delay between the time traffic on Rural Road is stopped by a red light and the time traffic on Carver gets the green light, she said.

Wilfert said she waits even longer before entering Rural Road from Carver these days. “I almost stop to look to see (if anyone is running the red light on Rural Road).  Certainly, if you’re sitting at a red light, you’ve got to wait five seconds to see if it’s clear to go through.”