What they fear most, pastors at St. Louis Roman Catholic Church in Clarksville said last week, is that someone may die before the state installs a traffic light at the entrance to the church parking lot.
In the last two years, there have been 40 accidents at the intersection of routes 32 and 108 in front of the church, the priests say.
Most accidents have been minor, but sooner or later someone -- perhaps a child -- is going to be killed if the situation isn't remedied, said pastors Jeffrey Dauses and James Barker. Accordingly, the priests have circulated a petition within the 3,000-member congregation and among Clarksville merchants stating that a traffic signal "is both warranted and necessary at this intersection."
State Highway Administration engineer Wayne Clingan disagrees.
He says the amount of traffic at the intersection does not warrant a signal light, and that to put one there may lead to the kind of accident the priests now fear.
Accident figures provided by Sgt. Gary Gardner, a police spokesman, show that during a 14-month period from January 1988 until March 1989, when a traffic signal was installed at Route 108 and Ten Oaks Road, there were seven accidents at the Ten Oaks intersection and 10 in front of the church, none of them on a Sunday.
In the 18 months after the traffic light was installed -- April 1989 through September 1990 -- nine accidents occurred at the Ten Oaks intersection and 25 in front of the church, two of them on a Sunday, Gardner said.
Police conducted a survey of traffic patterns in front of the church earlier this year after Clingan wrote a letter to his State Highway superiors saying a traffic signal there was not justified.
As a result of the survey, police recommended that parish traffic exit onto Ten Oaks Road and requested that the State Highway Administration explore changing the timing of the Ten Oaks traffic signal during Saturday evening and Sunday services, Gardner said.
The priests think a more workable compromise would be to install a light that would control traffic in front of the church at peak hours and blink caution at other times.
A traffic light is needed most, the priests say, on Monday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30, when religious education classes are conducted; morning and evening rush hours, when 10 school buses bring children to and from the church's parochial school; and Saturday and Sunday until 2:30 p.m., when 850 cars are trying to get out of the parking lot.
Attempting to cross the intersection from the church at almost any hour can be a harrowing experience.
From the left, three lanes of traffic bear down on you at speeds around 55 miles an hour or more. One lane turns left onto Route 32, one goes straight ahead on 108 and a third turns into the church. Some motorists use the church entrance lane as a passing lane, especially during rush hour.
The most prudent course is to wait until all lanes clear.
To the right, two lanes bear down on you at high speeds. One turns right onto Route 32, the other goes straight ahead. Your destination on the other side of the intersection is not directly across from you, but is actually a dog-leg to the right. Traffic comes at you from what looks like a 45-degree angle.
Negotiating the intersection safely from the church during non-peak hours means waiting about 90 to 120 seconds for an opening. During peak hours with a line of cars behind you, the pressure to jump out into traffic more quickly is enormous.
The priests say the church has offered to pay the cost of installing a traffic signal, as W. R. Grace Company did at its driveway and Route 32.
"If a private company with state and county support can have their signal, why can't we have ours?" the priests asked.
Cost is not the issue, said state highway engineer Clingan. "We're talking safety, pure and simple." Traffic lights "are not an all-inclusive safety improvement"; they sometimes cause accidents rather than eliminate them, he said.
The purpose of a traffic signal is "only to control large volumes of traffic," Clingan said. They are "warranted" or not warranted as the case may be by "nationally established standards."
Clingan said that while the intersection has not had sufficient traffic volume to warrant a signal light in the three or four studies previously conducted at the site, his department will be making another test in the next six months.
Meanwhile, the priests confess to being frustrated that state and local officials have not pressed the need for a traffic signal.
Associate pastor Barker measures the need for the light not in terms of traffic volume, but in terms of personal injuries. He said that in the more than three years he has served the parish, he has visited 10 parishioners hurt seriously enough at the intersection to require hospitalization.
He worries about the possibility of a child being injured since so much of the church's traffic is related either to the parochial school or the Monday night religious education classes.
As a safety precaution, school buses don't try to cross the intersection from Route 32, but make a U-turn at Gateway School and enter from 108, Barker said. Exiting, the buses turn onto Ten Oaks Road and then turn onto 108 rather than risk crossing the intersection.
A bus running behind schedule last year tried to take a shortcut across the intersection and was hit, Barker said. No children were injured.