Dustin Neace was a quizzical, quiet 18-year-old who listened to his grandfather when he told him to never ride his motorcycle on the perilous highway. So the Mesa teen with curly black hair tucked under his helmet drove his black Suzuki on city streets traveling to work and school.
He would tell friends and family of the hectic traffic, and he heeded his grandfather’s warnings about large intersections and yellow traffic lights, said his father Sean Neace, of Anchorage, Alaska. But the precautions couldn’t prevent the young man who loved God and family from becoming Mesa’s 46th traffic fatality in 2006.
At 7:17 a.m. Dec. 4, Neace was driving his Suzuki west on Southern Avenue as a 71-year-old Mesa woman drove her Chrysler LeBaron east on Southern and turned left onto Greenfield Road.
When she failed to yield on what witnesses said was a yellow light, the vehicles collided, according to police reports. Neace was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said family friend Stewart Karpiuk. “Grandpa called and said, ‘Dustin is gone.’ I just shook my head in disbelief because I knew this would happen.”
Each day, traffic is thick with motorists speeding along the asphalt in Mesa. Some drivers are encapsulated in their vehicles, other people are more vulnerable riding motorcycles and bicycles or walking across the street.
Mesa’s death toll barely broke 30 in past years, but in 2005 the number spiked to 67 traffic fatalities. The number remained high in 2006, when 49 people were killed on the city’s 1,243 miles of roadway.
On Thursday, Mesa saw this year’s fourth traffic fatality when a 21-year-old woman died.
Officials have spent hours studying the fatal collisions as well as dangerous streets but can’t pinpoint a sole reason for the recent spike. The city is spending millions of dollars to improve everything from intersections to the lettering on street signs in the name of public safety.
The factors that lead to fatalities vary from bad driving to speeding, inattentive driving, distracted driving and drunken driving, Mesa police Cmdr. Ron Kirby said.
An analysis of 2006 fatal collision reports obtained by the Tribune reveals several reasons and locations for the deaths.
Friday was the most common day when collisions occurred, with a slight majority happening after dark throughout the week and weekend.
The tragedies occurred when people walked outside crosswalks, followed motorists too closely or lost control of their vehicles and hit light poles. Crash victims died mostly west of Val Vista Drive.
If there was a common thread in 2006, it would be fatal crashes that were the result of people failing to yield to oncoming motorists. The reports show that 19 of the 46 fatal collisions were because of failure to yield.
Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said failing to yield is a nationwide problem. But he said Mesa could suffer from aggressive drivers traveling at high rates of speed.
Rob Gray, an Arizona State University applied psychology professor who studies driver behavior, said people evaluate a vehicle’s distance but not the speed.
Gray, who once worked as a project scientist for Nissan, studies how humans interact with machines. He currently works under grants from the National Science Foundation with ASU graduate students and an instructor at Purdue University.
Using a driving simulator, Gray is learning how to alert people of danger.
He is working on warning devices that could vibrate a seat belt or the seat itself to tell a driver of a hazardous situation such as when a vehicle is getting too close.
ABOVE THE NATIONAL AVERAGE
Transportation officials have stopped short of blaming population growth for the spike in fatalities. They agree with police that Mesa’s numbers are on par with national data.
“Mesa for so many years has been below the national average that when we went up to 67, that brought us just a hair above the national average for fatalities per 100,000 population,” said Larry Talley, city traffic studies analyst. “We just said Mesa has been blessed that our rates have been so low for years.”
Calculations using U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that Mesa hit 15.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 2005.
National data isn’t available for 2006, but there were 14.7 deaths per 100,000 people nationwide in 2005, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Statewide, the rate was 19.8 deaths.
While Mesa’s 2005 ratio fell below that of the state, it still topped other East Valley cities. Scottsdale, which had 29 deaths, was the only location to come close with 12.8 deaths per 100,000 people.
PUTTING A FACE ON TRAGEDY
Those at fault for the Mesa collisions in 2006 ranged in age from a 15-year-old girl to an 87-year-old woman. The average person was a 35-year-old man.
Those who died last year ranged from an unborn child to an 88-yearold man. The average victim was a 38-year-old man, a Tribune analysis of the reports shows.
Neace came to Mesa from Anchorage after high school to study graphic design at Collins College in Tempe. He would have graduated with an associate’s degree in December 2007, Sean Neace said.
Laro Nicol, 22, of Mesa, was 2006’s first victim. Nicol died Jan. 6 when a 45-year-old Mesa man drove his car in front of Nicol’s motorcycle.
There were 1,193 deaths statewide in 2006, according to preliminary state numbers, said Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Doug Nintzel.
A full state review isn’t available, but Nintzel said there was an increase over the 1,179 people who died in 2005.
A state official said the increase is likely because of population growth and an increase of traffic on the roadways.
People are spending more time in their cars as the Valley is growing and motorists travel farther and faster to work and home, said Michael Hegarty, deputy director for the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
In its early boom days in the 1950s and 1960s, Mesa developed on the west side, where motorists now find a high density of businesses as well as apartments and houses.
Each corner gas station, restaurant, shopping center and apartment complex has its own entrance off streets that are narrower than those on the east side, said Derrick Bailey, senior transportation engineer in the city’s transportation department.
“You have so much more to pay attention to in the older parts of town,” Bailey said. “There’s a lot more pedestrians in the older parts of town, too, because it’s a higher walking population there and people biking where they’re not supposed to, and people pulling out of driveways.”
The west side offers a different layout than the east end of the city, which developed past Gilbert Road in the 1970s and 1980s and is now growing near Williams Gateway Airport, Bailey said.
In the 1970s, people recognized that access management is a good tool in the Valley, Bailey said. East Mesa roads were built to be wider and with fewer turn-ins, he said.
As motorists head east, the standard road is 88 feet wide with bicycle lanes and multiple turn lanes, Bailey said. In growing east side areas, there are also fewer driveways.
Bailey said there isn’t much the city can do about the perilous and numerous driveways on the west side. The city can’t take access away from people or fill in those driveways unless an area is being redeveloped, Bailey said.
LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
A Tribune map detailing the fatal collisions for the last five years shows clusters at the intersections of Mesa Drive and Southern Avenue, Stapley Drive and Broadway Road, Stapley Drive and Southern, and Greenfield Road and Southern.
At Mesa Drive and Southern traffic traveling in two lanes in each direction zooms down the asphalt strip.
The corners at Stapley Drive and Broadway are marked by a Circle K, Quiktrip, and two check cashing businesses, which drivers pull in and out of. Nearby there is a strip mall, apartments, homes, and a day care center.
As the city works to make the streets safer, transportation officials are looking at changing the font on streets signs and installing more illuminated signs with the emphasis on improving the driving environment for elderly motorists, Talley said.
Along several miles of Broadway, workers have already placed warnings on the backs of street signs that alert bicyclists that they are riding the wrong way.
But the most extensive and expensive work is a series of projects in the county- and city-funded Regional Transportation Plan that will target the older parts of Mesa, where streets need to be widened to aid growth and safety, Bailey said.
The first project will break ground this year at Gilbert Road and University Drive, said Glenn Gorke, spokesman for the city’s engineering department. The intersection widening that will expand the roadway from two to three lanes with dual left turn lanes could begin in March.
Construction and utilities are expected to cost up to $10 million, Gorke said. Three fatal collisions have occurred in that area since 2002.
In 2008, crews are planning to begin work at Greenfield Road from Southern Avenue to Baseline Road and expand a corridor there, Gorke said. The total cost is set at no more than $6.5 million.
Widening projects are also planned for multiple intersections that include Mesa Drive and Southern Avenue, and Stapley Drive and Southern Avenue, Gorke said.
The preliminary plans call for street widening, adding left-turn lanes and bicycle lanes as well as sidewalks that are detached from the roadway, Bailey said.
Many of the projects are in the planning stages and wouldn’t be under construction for several years, he said.
ON THE HEELS OF TRAGEDY
When 67 people died in 2005, transportation and police officials worked together to examine the collisions in an effort to prevent future deaths.
It was a year when there was an increase in pedestrian and bicyclist deaths.
A total of 14 were killed, Kirby said. The same number of pedestrians and bicyclists died in 2006.
The departments and the state analyzed crash types, time of day, age of drivers and brainstormed during the process, Talley said.
The findings for the 2005 crashes were that speeding and drunken driving were large contributors for crashes.
There was also evidence that victims in vehicles didn’t use their seat belts 48.5 percent of the time.
The numbers show that alcohol and drug use led to 28 fatal collisions in 2005, a large increase from the six in 2004, the report says.
The 2006 reports obtained by the Tribune reveal that 12 crashes involved the use of drugs and alcohol; however, local and state agencies say it could be fall before a complete 2006 analysis is available.
LAW AND ORDER
For officers, prevention is multipronged and includes patrol presence, enforcement through citations, use of photo radar vans and a large increase in traffic cameras.
In September, Mesa police touted Operation Drive and Arrive as an aid to finding and citing drivers who run red lights, speed and commit violations that lead to serious injuries and death on the city’s roadways.
The idea behind the program is to provide a higher visibility of officers and to be proactive in stopping people on the road.
Police say the operation contributed to a higher number of citations given to drivers and a decrease in crashes.
From its commencement to the end of 2006, police handed out 24,762 citations — 2,885 were due to Drive and Arrive, according to the department’s crime analysis division. During that same time period in 2005 officers gave out 20,282 citations.
Data shows that the program has contributed to a reduction in crashes with injuries, hit-andrun collisions with no injuries and a large decrease in hit-and-run incidents with injuries, Kirby said.
There were 12 fatalities during that time period each year.
Along with Drive and Arrive the city expanded its traffic camera program last year, upping the number of red-light camera intersections from 13 to 30.
A majority of the red-light cameras didn’t come online until fall so it is unclear what impact they are having on drivers.
Three-year data based on the use of 13 cameras shows that the city had a 15 percent decrease in total collisions, said Joe Bonacci, traffic program coordinator for the police department. Out of that 15 percent, there was a 30 percent decrease in injury collisions.
The City Council has agreed to use a camera at one of the 30 intersections to catch speeders and is currently requesting pricing for permits for such cameras in school zones, Bonacci said.
In April, the transportation department and the selected vendor are expected to present information to the City Council about the school zone speed cameras, also known as speed loops, Bonacci said.
ONE FAMILY’S GRIEF
The news of Dustin’s death came at a tough time for the Neace family.
Sean Neace’s oldest daughter had gone into labor and lost a baby the day before the fatal collision.
It was 8 a.m. Dec. 4 when there was a knock on his door and church members showed up to offer the family support. The music director told him about Dustin and said he was killed riding his motorcycle.
“The harder part for me was having to go to the hospital and tell his older sister what had just happened,” Sean Neace said. “That was, I think, probably the hardest day of my life.”
But the father doesn’t express anger and doesn’t believe his son would either.
“If Dustin could say anything to the lady that hit him, he would say, ‘I forgive you and I don’t hold it against you,’” Sean Neace said.