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Cornfields said to cause car accidents


GRIMES, Iowa -- With green acres of cornstalks rolling to the horizon, these few weeks before harvest are probably the loveliest time of the year here.

But this season is also, perhaps, the most hazardous, thanks in large part to that same corn, which has grown to record heights with the help of some well-timed spring rains.

The problem is traffic accidents. This town, like hundreds in Iowa, is crisscrossed by dozens of unpaved, gravel-road intersections, many of them without stop signs. The corn can obscure drivers' views of coming traffic, which often leads to wrecks.

"I've seen people come speeding through here at all hours of the night," said Jason Hemann, a farmer who lives near such an intersection, and who says more stop signs would help.

As long as there have been corn and cars, there have been problems in Iowa in August, said Tom Welch, of the Iowa Department of Transportation. But Welch, who estimates there are 60 to 70 corn-related accidents in Iowa each summer, says this year's soaring corn crop is not the only cause.

The problem in places like Grimes, which is in one of the fastest-growing counties in Iowa, is compounded by the migration of city people from nearby Des Moines. These days, half-million-dollar homes and new schools are springing up on former cornfields. Housing developments butt-up against farms.

"Farm people know to slow down," said Doug James, who farms with Hemann. "The city folk from Des Moines drive out here and like to stop and look, 'Ooh, look at the corn, look at the farm.'"

Dawn Barkley joins most farmers in saying that more stop signs would solve the problem. In July, when Barkley's 18-year-old son, Nick, was killed in an accident outside Sioux City, another place where urban sprawl has complicated matters, state police told her that corn might have been a factor.

The people who are not farmers in Grimes, most of them professionals who work in the city, acknowledge that they use the gravel roads to avoid the busy highways.

"I've gone through here fast early in the morning or in the afternoon, when I'm going to pick up my daughter from day care," said Scott Kruse, who moved to Grimes about four years ago.

But Kruse, who was once a farmer, said the corn, not just the drivers, was to blame for the accidents, and he said the crops should be cut back. He noted that the tops of the stalks could be removed without damaging the corn.

Stop signs, Welch said, are not necessarily the answer in towns where unrestricted intersections have been around for dozens of years.

"More stop signs just create a disrespect for those signs," Welch said. The best solution, he suggested, was cutting back corn where possible.

The farmers resent that suggestion. Jay Farrow, a retired farmer, said farmers should be able to grow as much corn as possible. "A bushel of corn hardly buys you a bottle of pop anymore," he said.

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