ISP eyes I-70 work zones, even if drivers apparently aren't

Monday, October 1, 2012
Sgt. Joe Watts

Perhaps we all should have seen this catastrophe coming.

After all, back when the first of the multiple Interstate 70 construction zones began to spring up in a five-county area from the Indiana-Illinois line to east of Plainfield, we got our first glimpse at how bad it could possibly get.

On just the third day of work zone activity in late August 2011, a horrific semi accident -- caused by driver error but compounded by stopped traffic and narrow driving lanes -- claimed the life of an Ohio trucker near the Putnam-Clay county line.

*Ongoing I-70 work zone locations and completion dates Here is a list of the ongoing Interstate 70 projects in west-central Indiana and their estimated completion dates supplied by the Indiana Department of Transportation:

Putnam and Clay counties Project location: I-70 from 5.85 miles east of State Road 59 to 3.14 miles west of State Road 243.
Project type or brief description: Asphalt resurfacing.
Project estimated completion date: October 2012.

Putnam and Morgan counties Project location: I-70 from U.S. 231 to Little Point Road.
Project type or brief description: Asphalt resurfacing.
Project estimated completion date: November 2012.

Hendricks and Morgan counties Project location: I-70 from 0.5 mile west of State Road 39 to 0.47 mile west of State Road 267.
Project type or brief description: Asphalt resurfacing.
Project estimated completion date: November 2012.
Project location: I-70 from 0.56 mile east of Little Point to 0.5 mile west of State Road 39.
Project type or brief description: Asphalt resurfacing.
Project estimated completion date: July 2013.

Clay and Vigo counties Project location: I-70 from U.S. 40 (old State Road 46) to SR 59.
Project type or brief description: Asphalt resurfacing.
Project estimated completion date: June 2013.

In the ensuing weeks and months, the problems and the statistics and death tolls have multiplied like construction barrels along I-70.

After the horrible fiery accident that killed a Mississippi mother and her three-year-old daughter on Friday, Sept. 21, Sgt. Joe Watts, public information officer for the Putnamville District of the Indiana State Police, offered some sobering totals.

ISP records indicate that in Putnam County alone over the period Jan. 1, 2011 through Sept. 24, 2012, a total of 49 accidents have occurred in construction zones, 42 resulting in only property damage.

However, the other seven accidents have resulted in 12 injuries and six fatalities. In the area between the Indiana-Illinois line and the 69-mile marker in Hendricks County, 10 fatalities have occurred during 2012.

"The Putnamville District is taking this issue very seriously and using every resource available," Watts said, responding to a Banner Graphic question about the nightmare unfolding on I-70. "There is a trooper -- oftentimes more than one -- in the work zones nearly 24 hours per day.

"We have enlisted the help of Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) officials to review their policies and procedures and to take a different look at the work zones," Watts added. "Their efforts are ongoing as of this moment. We in the Putnamville District have had several meetings discussing the crashes and if we are doing enough."

Authorities do not, however, believe that construction zones and related activity are the main cause of the recent rash of serious accidents on the interstate.

For example, driver error was blamed as the cause of three work zone accidents occurring in the eastbound lanes of I-70 within a five-hour timeframe on Sept. 27.

"The crashes we have been working on I-70 in recent days," Sgt. Watts said, "are mostly caused by drivers not keeping their vehicles under control, not being prepared for sudden changes in traffic flow, and not reducing their speed when traffic dictates."

That's what drivers obviously are not doing. Watts had advice for what they need to do as well.

"Motorists should pay attention at all times, look ahead and beyond their vehicle, obey all traffic laws, be well rested and not fatigued, do not become distracted within their vehicle, keep eyes on the road at all times and pay particular attention to highway warning signs, including construction zones," the ISP spokesman added.

State Police officials have re-examined the construction zone set-ups along I-70 as a result of the rash of serious accidents, Watts said.

"We feel the INDOT warning signage is plentiful, and at the most strategic places," he said.

INDOT and ISP met together and separately last week to study what could be done to improve driving conditions in and around the work zones.

"Although construction contracts allow crews to close one lane of I-70 for up to five miles, INDOT is asking contractors to reopen lanes within the work zones when not needed so long as it is safe," Debbie Calder, communication director for the INDOT office of the Crawfordsville District told the Banner Graphic.

"Safety of the workers and motorists is the main reason the interstate is reduced to one lane due to uneven areas on the pavement, drop-offs and uncured patches among several other reasons," she added. "There is a risk to both workers and motorists to set up and remove the construction zones."

Meanwhile, State Police are taking I-70 safety concerns very seriously, Sgt. Watts stressed.

"We have been using both airplane and motorcycle patrols to enhance our presence and enforcement efforts as well as enlisting the help of our ISP Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division (CVED)," he said.

"The CVED division will be sending additional troopers to assist our district with sole responsibility to tractor-trailer inspections and enforcement. Also, there is a trooper -- oftentimes more than one -- in the work zones nearly 24 hours per day."

State Police officials keep asking themselves if they have been doing enough, Watts said.

"We currently believe we are," he said, "through media safety campaigns, increased presence in the zones, and increased enforcement."

The entire Indiana State Police Department is taking the safety issue very seriously, Watts assured. In fact, Putnamville District Commander Lt. Dan Jones is personally overseeing the safety issue and has visited numerous crash scenes, evaluating the situations and ISP efforts.

"We are literally working around the clock to slow, and hopefully stop, this dangerous trend," Sgt. Watts said.

"Short of putting a trooper in every private vehicle traveling on the interstate and reminding the driver to slow down, look ahead and be prepared for sudden traffic pattern changes, at this point there is not much else we can do.

"The sole responsibility lies with the driver of the vehicle."

Calder agreed, noting that Indiana even has been recognized for its efforts to make work zones safer, but drivers must play a major role in protecting themselves and others.

She said INDOT officials want to remind motorists of some safety tips:

-- Stay alert and look for reduced speed limits, narrow driving lanes and highway workers.

-- Pay attention. Work zone signs will tell you what to expect ahead.

-- Merge gradually. If drivers merge safely as soon as they see the signs, traffic will flow more smoothly.

-- Slow down. You may encounter slowed or stopped traffic within seconds.

-- Don't tailgate. Maintain a safe distance on all sides of your vehicle.

-- Minimize distractions. The three C's -- cell phones, CDs and coffee -- are the primary causes of driver inattention.

Watts offered one more idea to add to those tips.

"All drivers should consistently look in their rearview mirrors as traffic is slowing and or stopping," he advised. "If they notice a vehicle appears to not be stopping in time, try and take evasive action such as driving onto the shoulder, into the median, etc."

That all may sound so simple when you read it on paper, but in reality, it just might save your life.

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  • What was the woman supposed to do that was in the rear seat of a car that got smashed by the cement truck?

    -- Posted by Hazel on Mon, Oct 1, 2012, at 6:41 AM
  • Let's be realistic here. Not all accidents can be avoided. There are always innocent victims who are following the laws and still get caught in the middle and often die. It's a horrifying statistic.

    I think more could be done by everyone involved. Most of these accidents are not caused by locals, they're caused by out of state drivers unfamiliar with the terrain, the road hazards, construction or are in a hurry to go nowhere.

    Every single day, there are 1000s of people who disregard the "lane ending" sign and try to get "in front" of everyone. When people get in the appropriate lane immediately, it makes going through 1-lane traffic much smoother - but it rarely happens.

    I've seen semis try to regulate traffic by occupying both lanes, only to see vehicles drive in the grass to get around them. REALLY? You're THAT important? I doubt it.

    I think posting a State Police cruiser between the first "get over" sign and the actual "get over" location would help. Also, ticketing those who disregard the signs and drive around everyone else would get applause from those of us waiting in line 2 hours to let the "important people" in front.

    -- Posted by Emmes on Mon, Oct 1, 2012, at 11:49 AM
  • People think they are so important they do not take safety of anyone else into consideration. There should be an officer at the start of the zone, and one at the end to write tickets. I drive from Cloverdale to Indy every day and rarely see an officer along the road.

    -- Posted by JustinH on Tue, Oct 2, 2012, at 11:27 AM
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