KILLEEN, TX — Has a huge cement sign, designed to welcome, instead become a sign of danger? A number of people in Killeen and Harker Heights think the "Welcome to Killeen" sign along IH-14 has become just that.
The topic took on new importance after an 18-year-old from Harker Heights died last week. Her car veered off the interstate, hitting the cement monolith.
Now, a community is searching for answers to a problem that recently turned deadly.
The interstate sign welcoming people to Killeen looks anything but after a deadly crash that ended the life of Julianna Allen.
"She just started driving back in September, and she was actually a very good driver. Once she got her license, kind of drove us everywhere because she wanted to drive," said Megan Allen, Julianna's sister.
Her family says Allen called home just before the crash in the early hours of April 16, using a hands-free device to avoid unnecessary distractions. Even so, somehow her car left the interstate just before the sign.
"It was raining that day. She's only had a little practice with raining. I mean, so the rain definitely plays a big part into it," Megan explained.
The car got bogged down in the mud, causing it to flip. It end up on its roof as it hit the sign.
As more than 100 mourners gathered to remember the Harker Heights High School student, talk about the tragedy had already hit social media, mostly in a Facebook group called "The Welcome to Killeen Sign."
Online, locals recalled other accidents involving the sign that had almost reached legendary status. Some wondered who might get hurt next, while others called on Killeen to move the sign.
The "Welcome to Killeen" sign sits outside TxDOT’s clear zone, and its location meets TxDOT standards, according to TxDOT spokesman Jake Smith.
But one person pointed to a fact that stood out. For some time, drivers, apparently impatient at waiting in traffic, had long had an alternate exit. It's a dirt trail that leads right beside the sign from the interstate to the adjacent service road.
Apparently that's become a bit of a problem in Central Texas, so-called "homemade" or "fake" interstate exits.
In the stretch of interstate between South Temple and Killeen, we counted about a dozen of the trails. Although construction traffic can account for some of them, many appear in non-construction areas.
"This practice is dangerous and against the law. TxDOT highly advises against using illegal means of exiting a freeway," said Smith, regarding the trails.
Some people in Killeen call the welcome sign cursed. Others call it misplaced. Whatever you call it, friends and family of Juliana Allen call it the spot where God called their angel home. They don't want a debate over a hunk of concrete to overshadow their profound sense of loss.
But they fear it may have already happened, and that Killeen might make repairs and move on.
“All they care about is fixing the sign. They don't care that multiple other lives have been lost here, not just our sister," said sister Lauren Tilton.
City leaders say they haven't decided what to do with the sign.
The police department says it has no hard statistics on how many times drivers have hit the sign, as they begin a wide-ranging investigation into the cause of this latest crash.
"Evidence at the scene, whether it be tire marks, gouges in the roadway from point of impact, where the vehicles wind up, even to pieces coming off the vehicle in which direction they were going, there's a lot of things at the scenes to take into consideration, from the width of the road, to the type of the road, and the weather conditions a lot of stuff like that," explained Sargent Richard Bradley of the Killeen Police Department.
While police don't comment on open investigations, Sgt. Bradley of the Traffic Unit did explain how typical investigations unfold.
The Allen family hopes the look into Julianna's death will identify a clear problem and stop the injury and death that seems to center on this stretch of road.
Their solution? Put up guardrails to stop the phantom exit problem.
“Installation of guard rails and/or barriers is not warranted due to the roadway configuration and sign location outside the clear zone," TxDOT responded.
The family realizes the idea comes fraught with red tape, but call it the most fitting tribute to their loved one and others who have been hurt here.
"She wasn't the girl who hit the Killeen sign, she was Juliana Allen. She was our sister. She was another life lost and another one does not need to be lost because of the sign," Tilton said.
A sign designed to welcome, but for now, a sign that sends a warning.
But new investigative tools offer a better chance at not only identifying a problem, but a solution as well.
Some say the sound of screeching brakes has become fairly common along this stretch of IH-14 leading to Fort Hood and beyond. Now, it's come under a microscope after Allen's passing.
"KPD was very quick to put out that she was distracted by phone. She wasn't, I know she wasn't," said Megan.
Preliminary investigations remain just that. So, Killeen Police sent experts to digitally reconstruct the accident scene in a search for solid answers.
In earlier times, the results of early investigations might find their way into a final report.
"Conflicting stories, a he-says-she said in a lot of situations if the officer wasn't present when the crash occurred," explained Sgt. Bradley.
Then maybe, but not now.
Accident reconstruction has come a long way in the last several years. Now, investigators use equipment, much like surveyors use, to come up with a 3-D model of the accident site to look at the accident from all different angles.
Careful measurements from multiple sites help fill in gaps when officers have no witnesses, or need to better explain what they saw.
"You put all this information about bits and pieces and things you find into a computer. The computer will redraw the scene based on the data. You still have to have the base knowledge to understand, using math, different speed formulas or ball formulas or things like that to come up with an equation of what could have occurred based on the evidence," said Sgt. Bradley.
These computer-aided investigations often turn up new information, or help better explain what investigators think they know, even when no witnesses or cameras capture the event itself.
The technology has become more important, especially in high growth areas.
In Virginia, signs take the blame for confusing motorists. In California, a giant Trump sign, imitating the iconic Hollywood sign, gets tagged as a distraction.
The take-home? Signs can cause problems, but we could find nothing exactly like the Killeen incident.
One more reason the Allen family hopes this computer-aided investigation turns some new explanation for the loss of the 18-year old.
"Does it at least give us some comfort that somebody is going to look at this section, and hopefully they'll find a problem that might keep somebody from getting hurt again? Hopefully, I hope," said Megan.
Because at this point, the Allen family has only their memories of their loved one, and believe simple "off the shelf" explanations won't prevent another tragedy from happening here again.
Amy Fagundo and her friend believe "fake" or “phantom” exits may have contributed to their friend’s death.
"We think if you stop people from taking the shortcut here, that will go a long way to get serious problem... at the sign there was almost another one [accident], so just put a guardrail up save people's lives and put one up," said Fagundo.
Many agree guardrails certainly help, but experts say not in every case.
Police say no matter what caused this deadly accident, drivers can “arrive alive” by staying keenly aware.
"Being aware of where you're at on the roadway. The conditions, the speed limit. We may not always agree with what a set speed limit is on a roadway. It's not there to generate revenue is the popular thing in these, you know, social media. 99.9% of the time, it's there for safety," explained Sgt. Bradley.
In bad conditions, even the speed limit may be too fast, something many of us learned in February’s ice storms.
Police also say to limit your distractions.
"Everything you do that is not 100% driving takes away from your safety. Eating, drinking, listening to music, combing your hair, putting on makeup, talking with your kids in the backseat, messing with your dog, all of those things," said Sgt. Bradley.
These days, police say, Texas drivers have more distractions than ever, including the radio, cell phones, the weather, even the beautiful Texas scenery.
Which brings us back to the weather. Allen’s crash happened before dawn in the rain.
A computer-aided investigation should help narrow down the cause, with the help of the car in the crash itself.
"More modern vehicles, there are devices within those vehicles that monitor many, many systems in those vehicles, and some of that information can be looked at later to see what was going on prior to the crash. So the computer in my car can tell on me," said Sgt. Bradley.
If you did something wrong, yes, and also many things you did right, but not something the car doesn’t monitor.
Experts say the best way to avoid accidents?
"It's not just watching the car in front of you, the vehicle in front of you, much beyond that. And I think a lot of times folks will get in their bubble about what's going on just right around them and aren't anticipating what's going on further up the road," said Sgt. Bradley.
None of it can bring back Juliana Allen, but it may keep another tragedy from happening anytime soon.
"There's nothing else that matters other than a family member can't go back and see their family. They can't have another hug, they can't have another kiss. It's about a life, somebody who has cared about somebody who had people who loved them," said Fagundo.
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