U.S. 33 throws drivers a curve

One person was killed and 17 people injured after a bus collided with a sport-utility vehicle on U.S. 33 north of Churubusco in late December. U.S. 33 is notorious for having slick patches during the winter due to the winding, diagonal route of the highway through Noble and Whitley counties. File photo

One person was seriously injured in a head-on crash on U.S. 33 south of Ligonier on Jan. 31. A driver lost control on the icy roadway after exiting a curve and crossing into oncoming traffic.

KPC News Service

LIGONIER — On U.S. 33, there’s little room to make mistakes when you’re behind the wheel.

With hills that go up and down, curves both gentle and sharp, high embankments that often drop off sharply and limited shoulders in many areas, it’s not uncommon for drivers to get into nasty wrecks on the highway.

This winter alone, U.S. 33 has been shut down several times for serious wrecks, including a fatal bus-versus-sport utility vehicle crash north of Churubusco, a multiple truck rollover near Wolf Lake and a head-on injury crash south of Ligonier.

It’s no secret that the northwest-to-southeast corridor can be one of the most perilous roads in Noble County, police said. The Indiana Department of Transportation, too, recognizes it’s a unique route with some less-than-ideal features.

For now, no major projects are scheduled to improve U.S. 33, but the state continues to monitor traffic counts and safety statistics year by year.

“We don’t have any widening plans that are concrete right now. We don’t have any curve corrections that are concrete right now,” INDOT Northeast spokeswoman Nichole Hacha-Thomas said. “Those are things we’re always watching, always considering in the corridor.”

The winding two-lane highway is one of Noble County’s most-traveled routes. Between Ligonier and Churubusco, the highway can see between 6,000 and 7,500 vehicles per day, according to INDOT traffic count data.

In comparison, S.R. 9 north and south of Albion and S.R. 8 between S.R. 3 and Albion each get about 4,000 vehicles per day. Traffic on U.S. 6 between Ligonier and Kendallville is typically about 6,000 vehicles daily.

S.R. 3 is busier at about 13,500 vehicles per day, but it’s also a four-lane highway the connects Noble County’s largest city of Kendallville directly to Fort Wayne.

U.S. 33 traffic has to navigate twists and turns, travel through small towns, including Kimmell, Wolf Lake and Merriam, and pass by West Noble Middle School, West Noble High School and Wolf Lake Elementary School, Noble County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Chad Willett said.

The traffic is steady most of the day and includes a high number of trucks making connections between urban centers further north and Fort Wayne, Willett said.

“Traffic flow on 33 starts very early — 4 or 5 o’clock is not too early to have a significant amount of traffic,” Willett said. “A lot of that is trailer factory (traffic) that is going into Elkhart, Goshen, and a lot of commercial traffic and hubs in Fort Wayne and South Bend. That’s going to be your quickest road.”

In many places, the construction of the road isn’t the best for heavy traffic traveling at high speeds, Willett said. Many stretches have very little shoulder area available and, once you get off the edge of the road, it often drops sharply several feet into fields, Willett said. That can lead to rollovers when vehicles tumble down those slopes.

Those narrow travel lanes also get complicated by winter weather, which seems to cause a problem somewhere no matter how the weather is moving. Since U.S. 33 is a diagonal road and has so many curves, some part of it typically is exposed to wind, causing blowing or drifting when it’s snowy and icy, Willett said. That can catch drivers unaware, because they may travel for miles without any problems then suddenly hit an exceptionally icy area.

That’s what happened earlier this winter when the highway was shut down near Wolf Lake. The road became so icy that semi trucks slid and toppled. The highway was so slick that even an INDOT salt truck that had come to try to break up the ice lost traction and slid into a crashed semi.

Those issues aren’t lost on INDOT, but the state currently has no projects planned to widen shoulders, straighten curves or level out embankments, Hacha-Thomas said. Part of the reason why is just the amount of work that would need to be done and the cost.

U.S. 33 runs about 22 miles between Ligonier and Churubusco, and the state would need to obtain significant amounts of land from multiple property owners to expand the road, she said. Widening would have a significant impact on landholders and would take several years to complete.

“It would take a lot of money and a lot of time. To lengthen that, you’re looking at years and years. And it takes five years minimum to get any project off the ground,” Hacha-Thomas said.

The state does a have a few smaller projects slated for the near future. INDOT will be resurfacing U.S. 33 between Churubusco and Merriam as well as installing rumble strips in the center of the road to alert drivers if they’re crossing into oncoming traffic. The agency also is conducting a districtwide survey of curves to determine whether there are some areas that could be improved, Hacha-Thomas said.

The state is always collecting information about changing traffic patterns and safety. In the future, if those factors alter significantly, INDOT could take a harder look at possible upgrades for U.S. 33.

She agreed with Willett that drivers don’t have a wide margin for error on U.S. 33, compared to flatter, straighter roads. In the absence of any major projects in the future, drivers have to stay alert, travel at reasonable speeds for the conditions and not attempt to pass in areas where it’s not safe, she said.

“You have this intense association with U.S. 33, for whatever reason, and people either love it or hate it,” Hacha-Thomas said. “You have to be a very alert and law-abiding driver when you’re on U.S. 33.”

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