Ridge Avenue’s reputation as the City’s most accident prone street may be facing a challenge.

Fourth Ward Alderman Donald Wilson has two children driving and another about to begin.

“And I always refer to Ridge as their final exam,” he said.

Drivers, beginner or otherwise, have always found the north-south street a major challenge, with its heavy usage (15,000 to 20,000 vehicles a day) and narrower than standard lanes (nine feet wide as opposed to 10 to 12 feet).

But there are signs the City may be beginning to change that.

Between 2012 and 2018, the road, which runs between Emerson and Howard streets, had consistently dominated Evanston’s Top Ten crash locations, regularly landing six streets on the list dating back to 2012.

But the 2019 Annual Police Department report, released last month, shows only three streets along Ridge making the list last year.

Officials reported a total of 198 crashes occurred in the Ridge Avenue corridor in 2019, an 18% reduction from 2018 and a 29% reduction since 2017.

Of that total, 58 of the 198 crashes occurred at a Top Ten crash location, showing the street has not totally lost its punch.

Ald. Wilson has made safety along the street, which runs through the Fourth Ward, a longtime focus.

He said that while some of the unique design aspects of the street have at times left officials toolbox “pretty finite.”

But some recent changes, with the alderman working with the City Engineering and Evanston Police Department, may be producing headway.

Signs Help

 The City installed four speed feedback signs along the route, flashing motorists’ speeds as they drove by, a strategy that had proved successful earlier when used around school zones on Oakton Street.

In 2018, the City  lowered speed along Ridge from 30 to 25 miles per hour, said Rajeev Dahal, Senior Project Manager in the City’s Capital Planning & Engineering Bureau, overseeing many of the changes from the City side.

Besides those moves, the City  implemented turning restrictions at Ridge Avenue and Grove Street – ranked second with 15 crashes in the 2018 list – and at Ridge Avenue at Greenwood Street – tied for third with 21 crashes in 2017 – because of the high number of accidents at those locations. Both those corners were off the crash list in 2019.

“Then after that, we made signal operational changes at Lake and Ridge (tops in 2017 with 26 crashes and off the list in 2019), Mr. Dahal said. 

When “you can’t cross Ridge or go left on some of the streets,” observed Ald. Wilson, “you take some of the decision process errors out of the equation.”

Mr. Dahal said other moves, such as the Public Works Department’s trimming of foliage, which improved drivers’ line of sight, contributed to greater safety along the route

“And then the other thing that has helped a lot is the EPD (Evanston Police Department) has been doing a lot of vigorous traffic enforcement,” Mr. Dahal said.

Traffic Enforcement Important, Too

In 2019, the Evanston Police Department’s Traffic Unit received a state grant for $28,000 to address speeding violations, said Sergeant Tracy Williams of the Evanston Police Department’s Traffic Unit.

“This allowed us to do more speed enforcement with no additional cost to the City,” he said.

A total of 4,335 traffic related citations were issued in the Ridge Avenue corridor, police reported.

Of those 1,276 were for speed violations, 758 were for distracted driving, 875 were for disobeying a traffic control device/signal, and 396 were for failing to wear a seat belt, police said.

Sgt. Williams says he believes a change to a stricter State cell phone law may have changed the habits of some drivers which previously led to crashes.

“In years past, some drivers who were first-time violators of … cell phone use were issued local citations that did not affect their driver record,” he said in an email response. “Now all citations for cell phone violations must be State tickets as the State law changed, and cities are no longer able to issue cell phone violations as local citations.”

Ald. Wilson expressed appreciation for the work that Sgt. Williams and his team has done, and their communication with him.

He also appreciated what they are up against in some of the situations they may encounter on Ridge Avenue.

“There was one occasion – I don’t know if it was this year or last year – when someone had an IPad spread out in their steering wheel,” as they drove down the street, he related.

Officials recognize they have a ways to go to truly tame the street’s reputation.

The Church/Ridge intersection with 22 crashes, and the Ridge/Emerson intersection with 18, tied for first and third on the City’s 2019 crash list, and Ridge Avenue and Greenleaf Street finished fifth with 16.

But watch out – Mr. Dahal said officials have those streets in sight, too.

“As part of the Phase I Engineering study under the grant fund, we will be reviewing/analyzing the accident history at the seven intersections including Church,” he said “If there is a specific pattern of accidents recurring at Church, we will evaluate to see if there are any mitigation measures we can implement to try to address it.  We used the similar process to implement the changes at Grove, Greenwood and Lake.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.