Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Crash victim's mother lobbies for a safer bridge on NC 751

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comDecember 10, 2012 

— The fiery crash that killed Merrill Davis happened fast. Angela Jackson replays the horror in slow motion.

On a Sunday night in October, Jackson was driving down N.C. 751 to her late-shift job at a Durham nursing home. She slowed down – as she always does, she says – to cross an old, narrow bridge at the crest of a hill.

And then she was in the headlights of an approaching SUV. It drifted across the center line as it zoomed uphill toward her.

“This car was in my lane, and it was going to, like, head-on collision me,” said Jackson, 51, of Hillsborough. “I didn’t know if the person was drunk or asleep or had a heart attack.

“The car kept coming over. I moved over but I didn’t have room. If I had pulled over further, I would have been in the trees.”

N.C. 751 curves through Duke Forest and climbs to cross the bridge, built high over two railroad tracks. The shoulder falls away before the highway reaches the bridge. There are no guard rails to protect cars from the steep drop-off to the tracks below.

“I don’t know if guard rails would have saved him,” said Tamela Davis of Durham, whose son Merrill died that night. But now she wants the state Department of Transportation to replace the old bridge with a wide, modern structure, including guard rails for the approaches.

“I’m not blaming anybody or anything. I just want to call attention to what I think is a very dangerous traffic spot on a heavily traveled road, on an outdated, narrow bridge over the train tracks,” Tamela Davis said.

Merrill Davis, 34, lived less than a mile from the bridge. He was on his way home, driving his wife’s Hyundai Santa Fe, when he veered straight toward Jackson’s Chevrolet.

The two drivers avoided a full-on collision, but they clipped each other’s left-side mirrors. Jackson pulled over.

In her rear-view mirror, she saw the rest of the crash – the sixth crash recorded since September 2007 at the bridge in Orange County.

The SUV veered farther to the left and struck the concrete bridge rail. It fell down the steep bank, crashed beside the rail track and exploded in fire. Merrill was killed. Three days would pass before investigators confirmed his identity, using dental records.

“I can’t say if he was intoxicated or what else might have been in his system,” said Tamela Davis, 65, an elementary school art teacher. “I don’t know if he had some medical problem. It seems odd to me that he didn’t swerve.”

Sixth wreck since 2007

State crash reports show that four other drivers have struck the concrete rails of this bridge since September 2007, with two injuries and more than $15,000 in damages.

A fifth accident on the narrow bridge involved an ambulance that sideswiped a stopped car.

The road width shrinks from 20 feet on either side to 18 feet on the bridge itself. Because it’s at the peak of a hill, drivers cannot see each other as they approach from opposite sides.

“The bridge is very narrow,” Tamela Davis said. “There’s no extra width that could be used if you got too close to a car. I won’t ever get on the bridge with another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. I’ll wait to let it pass.”

Other drivers say they, too, are cautious around the bridge on N.C. 751.

“You’ve got to pay attention there, more than when you’re just driving down the road,” said Matt Spell, 29, a longtime friend of Merrill’s. “There’s room for two cars to pass, but if you see an 18-wheeler coming, you may want to stop.”

Jackson told the investigating trooper that she had slowed to 30 mph before the crash. The speed limit is 55 mph, and that’s how fast the trooper said Merrill Davis was driving.

DOT engineers took a fresh look at the bridge after Merrill’s death. They’re considering a reduced speed limit and guard rails for the approaches.

“We are looking to enhance the safety out there as much as we can,” said Brian Thomas, a DOT traffic safety engineer.

Officials also are investigating the possibility of building a new bridge there. A bridge designed to modern standards would be much wider, with more room for vehicles and possibly for people on foot.

The bridge was built in 1930. It is rated as obsolete but structurally safe. Earlier this year it received a sufficiency rating too high to qualify for federal replacement money. But Tim Powers, who oversees DOT bridge operations for Orange and three other counties, said he will ask for a new evaluation.

Merrill Davis worked the counter at Stone Brothers & Byrd Inc., his father’s farm-and-garden store in downtown Durham.

“He knew everybody in Durham,” Spell said. “He was a generous, generous person.”

Merrill was a former president of the Greater Durham Exchange Club, raising money for child-abuse prevention programs.

“The funeral home chapel wasn’t big enough,” said Debbie Mangum, the current club president. “There were people waiting outside, so far away they didn’t get to hear the service. But they waited in line to meet the family.”

Because the fire delayed his identification, Angela Jackson never heard Merrill’s name until last week.

“You tell the family that I’m sorry,” Jackson told the Road Worrier. “And if I could turn that clock around and straighten that car back up, I would. But I guess I don’t have that magic touch.”

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