News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News

September 25, 2012

DANGERS on I-70

Despite patrols and signage, major wrecks keep occurring

TERRE HAUTE — Judging by the number of fatal and serious vehicle crashes that have occurred on Interstate 70 in recent weeks, motorists who travel the cross-country superhighway through construction zones in Indiana may be putting their lives at risk.

A mother and toddler died in a fiery crash on Friday, and a Kansas woman died in a multi-vehicle crash on Sept. 16 -- becoming the eighth, ninth and 10th fatalities since Jan. 1 on I-70 between the Indiana-Illinois state line and the 69-mile marker.

In the first eight months of 2012, about 247 collisions — including 194 property damage accidents, 47 personal injury accidents and 7 fatalities — have been logged in this 69-mile stretch of I-70 by the ARIES crash recording system used by the state.

But it is neither the condition of the road nor the activity in the construction zones between Terre Haute and Indianapolis that have made the highway deadly for those three people. It’s the other motorists on the highway, according to police and highway authorities.

The Indiana State Police at Putnamville handles patrols of I-70 in Vigo, Clay and Putnam counties, and ISP has increased its patrols during the construction zone season.

“We have always had patrols out there in construction zones,” Sgt. Joe Watts told the Tribune-Star on Monday. “We have also initiated airplane details to look for speeding, and detailed some motorcycle patrols, and more commercial motor carriers.”

ISP has assigned troopers to patrol the construction zones since the spring, and whenever a traffic slowdown or backup occurs, Watts said, either due to an accident or to work being done, a trooper is sent to the rearmost part of the backup to warn approaching motorists of the problem ahead.

“In every construction zone we have a trooper assigned to it 24 hours,” Watts said.

ISP is well aware of the traffic tragedies occurring on the busy highway, and Watts said ISP has been proactive in meeting with state highway officials trying to come up with better ways to keep the traveling public safe.

“We have asked INDOT to study it to see if there is any way to help us out,” Watts said.

Local motorists in the counties bisected by I-70 are usually well aware of the traffic headaches and backups that await those who take the interstate, he noted. And that has prompted many motorists to use U.S. 40 as an alternate, because it parallels I-70.

But I-70 is a main route for many out-of-state travelers who have no idea of the bottlenecks or slow zones that run through Indiana.

“The problem is how to get the message out to motorists and truck drivers who are coming in from out-of-state,” Watts said.

Debbie Calder, communications director for the Indiana Department of Transportation, said INDOT officials are also struggling with how to get the motoring public on I-70 to stay alert, slow down — and stop crashing.

“Nationwide, four out of every five people killed in work zones are motorists, not highway workers,” Calder said.

Indiana has been recognized for its efforts to make work zones safer, she said, but drivers must protect themselves and others. INDOT has placed numerous warning signs and dynamic message boards along I-70 to warn motorists, Calder said.

To get a better idea of traffic flow and construction zones on I-70 on Monday, a photographer and reporter from the Tribune-Star traveled I-70 from the Indiana-Illinois State Line to the 23-mile marker at the Indiana 59 exit in Clay County.

Worksite warning signs start appearing along the eastbound roadside in Illinois as motorists approach Indiana. Signs warning of reduced speed limits of 45 mph in construction zones are interspersed with flashing arrow boards and signs indicating 12-foot-wide lane restrictions.

Six worksite warning signs appear within the first four miles on I-70 approaching Terre Haute, as well as a “Road Work Next 55 Miles” sign east of the U.S. 41 exit. At the 8-mile marker, a sign warns of road construction for the next 12 miles, and is followed by a flashing message board that again warns “Road Work Next 55 Miles.”

An ISP trooper is seen patroling Vigo and Clay counties. At the bridge over Honey Creek, another sign with flashing lights lowers the speed limit to 45 mph near the 15-mile marker. Just ahead, a flashing arrow board directs traffic to merge left as the right lane closes in about a mile. Several other signs warn of the impending construction zone. And at the Vigo-Clay county line, traffic is merged into the left lane.

The signage continues with regular frequency through the construction zone, with right lane travel restricted by orange- and white-striped barrels.

While there is no work actively going on in the construction zone, Calder said that a work crew can show up at any time at any place in the construction zone, and that is why the traffic restrictions remain in place.

Approaching the Indiana 59 exit, work crews are visible in the westbound lanes, where backhoes have dug out sections of the passing lane, and patch work continues.

On the westbound trip back toward Terre Haute, traffic remains reduced to one lane long after active work seems to have ended. However, approaching the 11-mile-marker exit to Terre Haute at U.S. 40/Indiana 46, another work crew is setting out traffic barrels to signal the start of another work zone.

Calder said INDOT dilgently notifies the public of planned work projects through local media and its website. She uses an email distribution list to notify many of the trucking companies around the region who have asked for regular updates on road construction and work zones.

Ultimately, Calder and Watts agree, the responsibility for safe driving rests with the motoring public.

As Watts stated:  “The bottom line is, you have to be prepared to stop your vehicle.”

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