MACON — The Illinois Department of Transportation says changes are coming to a U.S. 51 intersection long considered hazardous by county officials and lawmakers, nearly one year after 80-year-old Phil Jacobs died of injuries suffered in a traffic crash there.
The intersection of U.S. 51 and West Andrews Street Road, also known as Macon County Highway 32, is near the P & V Quick Stop at 399 E. Andrews St. in Macon. A number of crashes have happened there since IDOT expanded the busy U.S. 51 from two lanes to four in the early 2000s. Most recently, the intersection was the site of a two-vehicle crash between a pickup truck and a semitruck in July in which no one was injured.
In November 2011, several Central Illinois elected officials gathered in the rain to announce their intentions to work toward bringing a signal to the intersection.
No traffic light was installed since then, but the state took other steps, lowering the speed limit to 55 mph and adding more signage and striping to the roadway.
Now, IDOT is planning more changes and plans to discuss them in a public meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Macon Community Center, 1039 S. Woodcock Road. Those who attend are encouraged to provide feedback about the state's plan, with which officials hope to move forward next year.
Norma Jacobs, the widow of Phil Jacobs, is among those who feel something needs to change, said Bill Faber, her attorney in litigation related to the Sept. 4 crash that killed her husband.
"It's Mrs. Jacobs' fervent wish that some sort of modifications be done at that intersection," Faber said, "so that some other family doesn't have to experience the same kind of tragedy."
Andrew J. Johnson, 29, of Decatur was convicted Sept. 28 of failure to yield at an intersection in the crash involving the Jacobs. The Macon County Sheriff's Office has said he was stopped on West Andrews Street Road and tried to continue west when his pickup truck collided with the couple's car. Jacobs, a former Herald & Review writer and photographer, died from his injuries eight days later.
Johnson was also driving a grain semitruck struck by a vehicle containing Tony and Karen Hable, both 57, on Nov. 11 in DeWitt County. The Hables died in that crash.
That case is still pending. Records show Johnson entered a written plea of not guilty for charges of failure to obey a stop sign, driving without a safety belt and driving with an overweight axle during the Nov. 11 crash. Greg Fombelle, Johnson's attorney, declined to comment.
As for the intersection where the Jacobs' crash occurred, the proposed changes still do not include a traffic signal, said Mark Daugherty, studies and plans engineer for IDOT's District 7. Instead, Daugherty said the improvements will be "geometric."
Macon County Engineer Bruce Bird said the changes would address the way roadways are physically designed to allow traffic flow. Installing a traffic signal at the juncture would be an expensive last resort for solving the intersection's problems, Bird said.
It could also create more problems. "When putting a stoplight on a main through-road, you can add a different level of accidents that occur there," Bird said. "(IDOT) is going to be bringing a lot of different options."
Among those who would be affected by the change are Teresa Williams of Macon, who works as a manager of nearby Dollar General, 101 Merchant St. Williams said recently that she wasn't aware of the meeting or the proposed changes, but she said she'd be willing to attend and hear what others have to say.
While crashes do happen at the intersection every now and then, she said they aren't an everyday occurrence.
"I've lived here seven years, and I've never been in an accident there," she said. "You have to pay attention, but I think a (traffic) light would help."
Faber said he recalls IDOT considering making U.S. 51 a "controlled-access" highway, giving it many of the qualities and features seen in many other high-speed interstates — such as exit ramps and a lack of intersections.
Many citizens, especially the farm community, resisted the idea as it would have hindered their equipment, he said.
Driving on any roadway comes with considerable risk if one doesn't follow the rules of the road or if someone isn't paying enough attention, Faber said, so it can be hard to determine what's the right approach when it comes to improving the safety of junctions like the Macon intersection.
"There's really no good answer, I suppose," he said. "But for some of the people who have experienced tragedies and have felt unheard, maybe (the planned improvements) are a sign that they have finally been heard."