Mary Ellen Fox, 35, who works at the Good Earth Nursery in suburban Virginia, says she has little doubt about what caused the accident that killed a 17-year-old girl at the intersection near her business on May 28.
Fox says she believes it was grass -- the tall, uncut grass that shielded the intersection of Old Keene Mill and Sydenstricker roads in Springfield, grass that state highway crews are supposed to keep trimmed.
Police agree that grass in the median obstructed the vision of the two young drivers who were approaching each other on Old Keene Mill, contributing to the accident that killed Jacqueline Collingwood, a Lake Braddock High School student. Collingwood was a passenger in the car that was struck as it turned left onto Sydenstricker, a samll two-lane road.
"I go by there about evey day, and an experienced driver would have problems," Fox says of the intersection where two other, nonfatal accidents occurred within 24 hours of Collingwood's death. "Everybody's always calling about it. Friday, Saturday and Sunday (after the accident), everybody that came into the shop would say something about it. One lady said she was nearly killed there."
A state highway official last week denied any wrongdoing in not having the grass trimmed, despite numerous complaints that the grass was a hazard to motorists.
"We do not cut grass by complaint," says Donald E. Keith, local division administrator for the financially strapped Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation, Keith said department efforts to save and to "stretch every dollar as far as possible" do not allow the maintenance department to mow roadside grass until it reaches 18 inches height.
Fox, who traveled through the intersection earier that day on the way to the nursery, says the grass was more than 18 inches high when the accident occurred.
"I'm a poor judge of measurements and everything, but I know that grass was more than 18 inches high," she says. "It was more than any ruler and a half."
"Everything up and down Old Keene Mill was high. (the medians) all looked bad," she adds.
Since the accident, Fox notes, she hasn't seen tall grass on any of the county's medians.
Jerome Friedlander II, an attorney representing the Collingwood family, says his investigation indicated that the grass was more than 18 inches tall. "A police officer says it was three feet at its highest point," Friedlander said.
Keith maintains the grass in the area was about 18 inches high on the day of the accident. Some of his crew members were cutting grass at another section of four-lane Old Keene Mill, he says, and others were filling chuckholes in the roads.
Whatever the height of the untrimmed grass, there is no dispute that inflation and declining gasoline tax revenues have shrunk operating funds used by state officials to pay for grass cutting and other routine maintenance.
"If we'd have been flush with funds, we'd have started sooner, maybe 15 days sooner," Keith says. "But our funds are far from taking care of inflation; $40,000 (the additional amount given the maintenance department for grass cutting this year) on 2,000 miles of road doesn't take care of inflation."
William Wrench, a state highway commissioner who represents the district that includes Northern Virginia, says the department is "asking for trouble" when it tries to blend pennypinching and proper maintenance.
"I feel it's pennywise and a pound of follish," Wrench said. "I think the maintenance [of state roadways] is deteriorating. They ought to spend more money on maintenance and take it off construction."
Keith counters that despite department cutbacks, it's up to motorists "to take into account the existing conditions," and says the drivers' ages, the speed of the cars and other driving conditions should be considered in the Collingwood case.
The driver of the vehicle that struck the car in which Collingwood was riding is 16. There have been no charges, pending completion of the police investigation. The driver of the other car is 17.
Fairfax County police officer Marsha Webb says there were witnesses to the accident and "no indication that anyone was exceeding the [45 mile per hour] speed limit."
An accident a few hours before Collingwood's was attributed to driver inattention and the grass, according to Officer Webb. There also was an accident there the day before. Neither of those accidents was fatal.
Meanwhile, Friedlander, who says his calls to the highway department have not been returned, contends state maintenance crews didn't begin cutting the grass at the intersection until the next morning, after some area teen-agers had gone to the scene and done some mowing on their own.
"I guess they just got tired of losing their friends," Friedlander said.