Accidents Up in Construction Zones; Some Say Lack of Paved Shoulders May Be to Blame

Article excerpt

Byline: David Bauerlein, Times-Union staff writer

In the split second it takes for a wheel to drop off the highway's edge, Susan Rudd veered into danger.

Rudd, a commercial truck driver, was traveling Interstate 95 in St. Johns County when she hit a stretch of highway where construction eliminated paved shoulders on the outside lanes. The front tire of Rudd's truck dropped off the pavement.

Rudd fought to regain control but the 18-wheeler crashed into guardrails at Turnbull Creek.

"There's no margin for error out there," the Yulee resident said. "You can be on your guard and as far as I'm concerned, the best drivers can lose it."

A Times-Union review of accident reports shows Rudd is not alone in her experience on I-95, which the state Department of Transportation is widening to six lanes in St. Johns County. Construction for the $83 million project began in July 2002.

In the 26-mile stretch from International Golf Parkway to the Flagler County line where the state's construction has eliminated paved shoulders, there were 62 run-off-the-road crashes in the past year, according

to the Times-Union review of the accident reports. That was 38 percent of the wrecks.

From the Duval County line to International Golf Parkway, where the state has provided 4-foot paved shoulders on the outside lanes during construction, there were eight such accidents in the 9-mile stretch. At 21 percent of the wrecks, this was 17 percentage points fewer than the portion with no shoulder.

No state or national guidelines require providing paved shoulders during construction, even on an interstate highway. The decisions are made on a project-by-project basis.

Yoli Buss, director of traffic safety for AAA Auto Club South, said the I-95 accident reports highlight the safety benefit of retaining paved shoulders during roadwork.

"The bigger the shoulder is, obviously it gives them [drivers] more time to correct when they lose control," she said. "A little bit of shoulder is better than no shoulder at all."

The engineer overseeing construction for the state agreed that paved shoulders provide drivers "recovery time." But Jim Gant, program director for Earth Tech, said it's just one of many factors in traffic safety.

"There are trade-offs," he said. "It gets down to everything you do has pluses and minuses."

For instance, he said if the state keeps paved shoulders for drivers on the outside lanes, that takes up highway space and requires reducing the amount of room between the inside lanes and the construction workers in the highway's median. In that case, the addition of recovery time for drivers results in a reduction in the margin of safety for workers.

So far, the widening project has not resulted in an increased fatality rate on I-95 in St. Johns County. Eight people have died in traffic crashes since construction began a little more than a year ago. In 2001, there were nine traffic fatalities and 21 in 1999.

However, the number of accidents has increased during construction. In the past year, there were 202 crashes on I-95 in St. Johns County, according to reports compiled by the state transportation department. Without construction in the same time frame in 2000-01, from August to July, there were 156 accidents.

Two fatal run-off-the-road crashes have occurred on I-95 where the highway lacks paved shoulders. In November, two North Carolina women were killed when the driver lost control and hit a tree south of Florida 206. …