PHOTO: clearing vegetation

SOMETIMES when tragedy strikes, it’s obvious that there was nothing that anybody could have done to prevent it. But the tragic death of Helen Wang in Stafford County was not one of those times.

The popular high school junior was killed on May 16, her 17th birthday, after picnicking with friends at Abel Lake when the car she was driving was struck by a truck as she was turning from the lake’s boat ramp parking area onto Kellogg Mill Road. Overgrown vegetation had obscured the sight lines at the intersection, so Wang apparently did not see the oncoming vehicle that killed her and injured her passenger, Jade Alvillar.

Stafford County officials weren’t aware of the danger either until after the fatal accident, when a group of Wang’s classmates at Colonial Forge High School—wearing yellow shirts because it was her favorite color—attended a meeting of the Stafford Board of Supervisors to inform them that conditions on that and other rural roads in the county were putting young residents’ lives in jeopardy.

“I would be willing to go out and even clear the vegetation myself. I just think something has to be done before another one of our friends is taken too soon,” one grieving student told the supervisors.

The county board immediately closed the boat ramp for a week while work crews from the Virginia Department of Transportation cleared out the trees, brush and other overgrown vegetation blocking the view of the road at the site of the crash. But it was too late for Wang, an honor student, competitive swimmer with the Stingrays swim team and SPCA volunteer.

There are many unforeseen road hazards that contribute to traffic fatalities, but overgrown vegetation that makes it impossible to see oncoming vehicles should not be one of them. This is an easy and relatively inexpensive problem to solve. But VDOT’s current three-times-a-year schedule to clear overgrown vegetation from local roadway rights-of-way is clearly not sufficient.

If VDOT can’t keep the vegetation at all intersections on the 1,621 miles of state roads in the Fredericksburg District from blocking drivers’ view of the road, they need to cut it down and replace it with stones or gravel for a more permanent fix.

With all the new construction on Interstate 95 this year, VDOT’s resources are stretched thin. That’s why Stafford residents should step up and help VDOT identify treacherous intersections and other dangerous road conditions—including potholes and too-sharp turns—by reporting them as soon as they are encountered at, or by calling 800/367-7623.

Community groups can also volunteer to “adopt” a stretch of road, especially in rural areas where VDOT road crews are seldom dispatched, and keep an eye out for any dangerous road conditions that need immediate attention.

Wang was dearly beloved by her family, friends and members of the community, who mourned their loss at a Celebration of Life in her memory at Curtis Park on Sunday. Nobody can bring this vibrant young lady back, but everybody in Stafford County can and should make sure that another promising young resident’s life is not cut short in the same tragic, but preventable, way.