After a string of fatal accidents on Fifth Street Southwest, the city of Charlottesville plans to make a few small adjustments on the road this winter while it grapples with larger — and more expensive — changes to the road’s design.

Charlottesville’s traffic engineer, Brennen Duncan, presented the proposed changes Monday night to the City Council.

Among the changes coming immediately between Harris Road and Cherry and Elliott avenues are advanced flashing “signal ahead” signs that will activate when the approaching signal is red. The department will also replace the “traditional green ball for permissive [left] turns with the flashing yellow arrow,” at signalized intersections and install “high visibility back plates on the signals.”

These measures are meant to improve safety at the intersections, where the vast majority of the wrecks take place, Duncan said.

Fifth Street — which has two lanes in each direction and mostly is flat and straight — sees about 3.5 times as many wrecks as the state average, according to a study conducted by the city. Most of these wrecks are minor rear-ending crashes and sideswipings at the intersections.

There have been five fatal wrecks on the thoroughfare in the last four years, three of which were since July. All of those, the Charlottesville Police Department determined, were caused by driver behavior and not the road’s design, Duncan said.

What’s more, data collected by a CPD smart reader shows drivers on Fifth Street travel on average between 42 and 44 mph, and 85% of drivers travel below 49 mph. The posted speed limit is 45 mph.

Still, Duncan recommends lowering the speed limit on the roadway to 40 mph.

“Nearly ⅓ of the accidents are rear-end collisions, and reducing the speed will help mitigate some of those,” Duncan said.

These initial changes will happen right away and be paid for using existing departmental funds. Other actions will not be as swift or as cheap, he said.

In the “mid term,” Duncan recommends installing a roundabout just north of Bailey Road.

“What [a roundabout] would do is break up the corridor,” Duncan said. “We have a mile stretch that’s a straight segment of roadway where people can get up to excessively high speeds. I do think it would help mitigate some of the accidents caused by high speeds.”

He also recommends improving the street’s lighting, at least at the intersections, and possibly adding pedestrian-level lighting below the tree canopy along the entire corridor.

Such changes could cost millions of dollars, he added.

At the meeting, several residents who live and travel frequently along Fifth Street spoke of the danger the roadway presents and asked the council to make some changes.

“I walk on Fifth Street almost every day,” said Kristen Lucas, who lives on the road. 

“I bike to work sometimes on Fifth Street. And I walked out my door when there was a crash, and someone had passed away on Fifth Street. I strongly support changes to Fifth Street to make it not only safer for drivers, but also for pedestrians and bikers and those that are living on this road and are concerned that you might be rear ended or maybe hit by a car while you’re just going about your daily life.”

Among the changes Duncan did not recommend Monday was reducing Fifth Street to a two-lane road, something some community members had called for after the string of fatal accidents this summer and fall.

Fifth Street is one of the main arteries into town and sees some 18,000 cars per day, and new developments in the area will increase that load by several thousand in the coming years, he said. Reducing the lanes would create gridlock, he added. His department did some modeling that showed during peak hours, traffic could back up through multiple intersections.

“This is always going to be a traffic-centric corridor,” Duncan said. “We are the economic driver for Albemarle County and the surrounding area. Whether we like it or not, we have commuters that are coming in and out.”

In the long term, Duncan recommends the city refocus its public transit model to create more bus routes along Fifth Street to support a park-and-ride system that would reduce the amount of traffic on the road.