Officials continue to warn against the use of a popular cut-through where two Marines recently died. But no other changes are planned to the road.
While an improved road, Catfish Lake Road is unpaved and without guardrails or shoulders. What makes it even deadlier is that a long stretch of it is surrounded by deep water canals, said Curtis Toler, a sergeant with the Craven-Pamlico County Highway Patrol.
“There are many dangerous factors with this road,” said Toler. “We have a generation of young people that haven’t grown up driving on dirt roads. Then, this road is approximately 12 miles long and it’s isolated. If there is a crash, you’re not likely to be noticed immediately due to the flow of traffic. ... If you go off into a deep ditch, and most of them are full of water, the penalty is quite severe unfortunately.”
There have been 12 fatalities on Catfish Lake Road since 2001, including a 2010 crash that killed two Cherry Point Marines when the driver lost control of the vehicle; a crash the next year that claimed five family members traveling in an SUV that went into a canal; and most recently, the two Camp Lejeune Marines who drowned Jan. 8 when their vehicle ended up in a nearby canal.
The problem, Toler said, is that most people do not practice how to handle their vehicle when it goes out of control — something he said should be practiced in a safe environment with supervision from a driving instructor and not when heading for a ditch.
“First and foremost it’s not recommended for people to travel this road,” Toler said. “It’s designed for hunting or outdoor activities. It’s a cut-through for hunting and fishing. They’re not designed like U.S. 17 with a surface for going at a fast rate of speed. When it’s used as a main thoroughfare, you will see disastrous effects.”
Despite the most recent deaths and hundreds of crashes over the years, the N.C. Department of Transportation has no plans of improving the road any further, according to Preston Hunter, the division maintenance engineer for the NCDOT based out of Greenville.
“Guard rails are a double-edged sword,” he said. “Unfortunately when you get on Catfish Lake Road there are ditches on both sides and it’s not feasible to run guard rails down the length of the entire road. The same goes for shoulders. As far as lighting goes, the road doesn’t get enough usage to justify lighting.”
One thing that may possibly change, according to Hunter, is the speed limit. The Department of Transportation in Raleigh, he said, is currently evaluating whether the speed limit should be reduced to 35 mph since speed has been noted as a common factor in most of the fatalities on the road.
“For the most part, it’s a very wide road and it’s in great shape,” he said. “It’s got some shoulders and it’s safe for driving — if you obey the speed limit.”
Marine Corps Installations East in 2010 restricted Marines from using the road unless they were hunting, fishing or participating in other recreational activities, citing the high volume of crashes.
“These accidents have an obvious effect on the health and welfare of Marines and sailors and have adversely affected unit readiness,” the order states. “The risk of vehicle mishaps along Catfish Lake Road are significantly higher because of the curves, blind spots, lack of posted speed limits, and absence of roadway lighting at night.”
The Marine Corps has no plans to further limit the use of Catfish Lake Road, said Nat Fahy, the public affairs representative for Marine Corps Installations East.
“The order specifically prohibits them from using this road as a cut-through when traveling between Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point,” he said. “Visible warning signs are posted on either end of this road citing this order, which was put in place to safeguard lives and prevent future tragedies from occurring.
“With its soft shoulders, deep culverts, blind spots, and lack of lighting, Catfish Lake road presents all kinds of hazards that could spell disaster for anyone traveling at a high rate of speed. While the investigation surrounding last week’s fatal accident is still ongoing, it certainly underscores the inherent dangers of this road and why this order was put in place.”
Thomas Brennan is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.