String of fatal crashes leads to safety initiative
RAF MILDENHALL, England — Steve Beard stood in front of his home watching the traffic on A1101.
“Sometimes you can stand here and see it coming,” said Beard, whose family has operated the Burnt Fen Garage next door since 1959.
Five members of the RAF Mildenhall community died in automobile crashes on A1101 in recent weeks. There have been nine U.S. fatalities since March on local roads.
As a result, RAF Mildenhall has begun Operation Street Smart to try to get drivers to slow down and be more alert on the roads around the base.
Unit commanders have reminded their airmen to be careful. An order has been issued that forbids passing on certain roads.
On Sept. 26, Cortina Hamilton and her three young children died when her car collided with another and landed upside down in a drainage ditch. Hamilton was the wife of Airman 1st Class Curtis Hamilton. On Oct. 7, Staff Sgt. Sean Bortel died a few miles away in a head-on crash with a truck.
Beard towed away many bent-up cars before his family got out of the recovery business.
He said 18 people have died on his little stretch of highway since 1981. The causes, he said, are usually too much speed, a lack of attention, impatience and not accounting for road conditions.
The two-lane A1101 isn’t the only dangerous road in the area but it’s typical.
Farmland on either side has sunken over the years from rain and tilling. The road has risen from repaving. In places, it’s like driving on top of a dike, with deep drainage ditches left and right. The pavement is uneven.
Farm vehicles drag dirt up onto the road and make it slippery. They travel slowly and take up a lot of space. So do the trucks and buses.
The speed limit is 60 mph, though it’s common for faster-moving drivers to run up a motorist’s backside and veer into the other lane looking for a chance to pass.
Local airmen seem OK with the new do-not-pass order, which does not apply when overtaking vehicles going 30 mph or slower.
Airman 1st Class Heather Reynolds said it was scary for her to drive in England when she arrived a year ago. She’s learned to compensate.
“You just pay attention to the road and drive straight,” Reynolds said. “Don’t pay attention to the cell phone or the radio, especially if you don’t know the road.
“Those curves come out of nowhere,” she said.
Safety officers at nearby RAF Lakenheath said in a news release that they are working with local British authorities to reduce accidents. They’re discussing improved signage and installing chatter strips on the roads’ edges, among other things.
Lt. Col. Tim Nickerson, chief of safety at the 100th Air Refueling Wing at Mildenhall, is in charge of Operation Street Smart. Nickerson said each month will have a new theme passed down to unit commanders.
The message for October’s kickoff is “Is it worth it?” November’s will address winter driving. December’s will focus on driving while intoxicated or fatigued.
Most importantly, he said, is for drivers to slow down. A slower-moving driver has more time to react to hazards.
As he stood along the highway earlier this week, Steve Beard said he hoped that Mildenhall airmen don’t think their commanders are just blowing smoke with Operation Street Smart.
“It’s not smoke,” Beard said. “We’ve helped sweep the bodies up, so we know it’s not smoke.”