The N.C. Department of Transportation announced Friday that would reduce the speed limit on Catfish Lake Road to 35 mph after a series of deadly crashes.
The news brought tears to JoAnne Hernandez, whose daughter, daughter’s fiancée and three grandchildren died in an April 17, 2011, crash on Catfish Lake Road.
“Oh my God. Finally, they’re doing something,” Hernandez said Friday when told of the news.
There had been no posted speed limit on the dirt and gravel road just west of Havelock that separates U.S. 70 from N.C. 58, meaning the speed limit was 55 mph or what is considered a safe speed. Hernandez lost her family when the car in which they were driving went out of control and flipped into a roadside ditch where the five drowned.
“This is a good thing to drop the speed limit and that the police are going to patrol, but how often are they going to patrol?” Hernandez said. “This is a start though. This is a start. The speed limit’s great, but they need to put guard rails up by that water.”
According to DOT statistics, there have been seven fatalities and 48 injuries over a five-year period from 2009 through 2013. However, that does not include two Camp Lejeune Marines who died on Jan. 6 when their car rolled into the roadside canal.
Steve Hamilton, DOT District II engineer, said the continued frequency of severe crashes played a part in the decision to reduce the speed limit and put up speed limit signs.
“There has been a reoccurring theme of crashes because people are going way too fast on the road,” he said. “So this is a trial to see if we can get people to drive more responsibly.”
Catfish Lake Road cuts through the Croatan National Forest. The 15-mile roadway has more than 12 miles that are unpaved.
The roadway has been used as a shortcut for motorists traveling between Havelock and Cherry Point to Jacksonville and Camp Lejeune. The deaths of Marines on the road prompted Marine leadership to ban personnel from using the road unless for recreational purposes in 2010.
“This will be the first for us in this division to have a speed limit on a dirt road,” said Chad T. Mills, a DOT transportation supervisor who will be leading the placement of 44 speed limit signs on the road beginning Tuesday.
According to Hamilton, the cost of the signs is $4,000.
The signs will be placed back-to-back on poles staggered ever mile alternating on the left and right sides of the road. A supplemental sign will be added to the pole facing oncoming traffic that will read “Entire Road.”
“If everybody pays attention to the signs and runs at the appropriate speed, there should be no problems, but when people come out here and speed excessively, then that could be a problem,” Mills said. “We can only put the ordinance in and put the signs up, but it’s going to be up to the local law enforcement to enforce it. They can come in here and write tickets once we get it in place.”
Sgt. Curtis Toler, of the N.C. Highway Patrol, said drivers should expect to see troopers enforcing the new speed limit.
“With the resources that we have, we will treat this road like any other,” Toler said. “The patrol has the capability to do speed enforcement on this road like we do any other road. We are fully prepared and fully capable. We have a variety of means of speed enforcement but the ultimate goal is voluntary compliance.”
Toler mentioned that drivers going 56 mph in the new 35 mph zone could lose their licenses.
“I hope they write them up,” said Chris Hair, who was driving on the road Friday. “If they catch them speeding out here, I hope they throw the book at them.”
Hair said the reduced speed limit was good news.
“They needed to do something about this a long time ago. It will save lives,” Hair said. “This road out here is a death trap for anybody who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
The loose gravel and bumpy conditions have caused problems for drivers, with the majority of wrecks involving a single vehicle in which drivers lose control and slide either into trees or overturn into ditches, according to DOT statistics.
“I’ve been riding these roads for 30 years,” Hair said. “It’s a bad place back here, and it’s a long way to the hospital.”
John Phillips, of Maysville, drove Catfish Lake Road on Friday.
“If you start bumping, then you could lose it,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of wrecks back here on this road. I’ve seen some people come through here going 100 miles per hour, just flying. It will be a lot safer for everybody,” Phillips said.
Ever since losing her family, Hernandez has been an outspoken proponent of changes to the road.
“We’ve been fighting so hard,” she said. “It’s a real good start.”