The three crashes involving nine vehicles Friday morning may seem to be the latest among a growing number of accidents on Interstate 395, but state statistics show the three-mile stretch between exits 79 and 79A is not a high-incidence area.
The area of Friday's crashes has been under some public scrutiny after a March crash killed a Norwich firefighter. Police say Willis Goodale, 50, of Groton was intoxicated when he used the emergency service turnabout just south of the state police headquarters between exits 79 and 79A, causing Benjamin DeMond, 33, to swerve out of the way. DeMond was killed and his two young sons were seriously hurt. Goodale has been charged in the crash and remains incarcerated.
The DOT does not have crash statistics for 2012, but Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said numbers from the previous three years show a low incidence of serious crashes in the area, especially compared to the volume of cars on that stretch of I-395. The three-mile stretch between those two exits has seen 149 crashes in those three years, Nursick said, two of which were fatalities. One of those, a March 7, 2009, crash, claimed the life of a 20-year-old Connecticut College student. The van she rode in was struck by an intoxicated Navy sailor driving the wrong way.
Nursick said none of the other 147 crashes involved a life-threatening injury, and 118 involved only property damage.
That stretch sees an average of 45,100 to 56,100 vehicles a day, good traffic volumes that provide "a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong," he said.
"There's no pattern and based on what we're seeing, no indication of similar occurrences other than basic driver error," Nursick said. "The numbers don't show a pattern or trend correctable by infrastructure changes."
Infrastructure changes, Nursick said, could include lowering the speed limit or altering the roadway, similar to what was done on Interstate 95 in Waterford near the I-395 split after several serious crashes there. The top three causes of crashes between exits 79 and 79A on I-395 are the driver losing control of the vehicle, following too closely and improper lane changes, which don't jump out as a roadway problem, Nursick said.
"When we see a pattern, we'll jump in with a project to soften that infrastructure to try and lessen problems caused by driver error," Nursick said. "Unfortunately, everyone looks to blame someone else for their own failings. Car crashes are an excellent example of that. People come screaming at the DOT saying it's the road's fault."
Michael J. Thomas, the state police master sergeant at Troop E in Montville, said police, too, look at data to determine higher enforcement zones. The area in question has yet to become an issue, he said.
"If we have an influx of motor vehicle accidents and they come to be a common occurrence, and significant nuisance, we would closely look at it," he said. "These accidents, where are they happening and why are they happening and what can we do to reduce that? We do that all the time."
The first accident on Friday happened when Sylvia Feliciano, 40, of 444 E. Main St., Norwich, who was driving a 2001 Buick Century, stopped in the left lane after her tire blew out, causing a five-car collision. The crash was reported at 9:36 a.m.
Sejalben Patel, 33, of 39 Cliff St., one of the drivers involved in the crash, was taken to The William W. Backus Hospital for treatment of neck and back pain.
Police said about 20 minutes after the initial crash Jeffrey Hill, 57, of Baltic was trying to avoid the accident when he struck another car from behind. Police cited Hill with driving without a license and gave him a verbal warning for driving too closely. A third, unrelated crash around the same time occurred when someone rear-ended another car.
No other injuries were reported in the crashes and police said charges are pending.
"We can go out there, and we do, and enforce motor vehicle laws, and we run radar to try to catch offenders that are exceeding the speed limit or doing inappropriate maneuvers," said Thomas of Troop E, which has its headquarters on I-395 between exits 79 and 79A. "A good portion comes down to driver error, not paying attention, not being attentive. People need to monitor themselves and their driving habits. That's why these laws are in place."
Nursick, the DOT spokesman, said of about 100,000 crashes statewide in any given year a majority are "overwhelmingly the fault of a motorist."
"The top three are related to speeding too fast for conditions, following too closely and failure to yield the right of way," Nursick said Monday. "These are 'Drivers Ed 101' issues we're talking about. People tend to not be paying attention to the task at hand, which is operating that vehicle safely."
Two of Friday's crashes, Thomas said, happened because of a fluke occurrence.
"The five-car pileup probably wouldn't have occurred if she didn't have a blown tire," he said. "That may have never occurred, but those things happen and we deal with them."
Izaskun E. Larrañeta contributed to this report.
Top 5 crash causes between exits 79 and 79A on I-395
between 2009 and 2011
1.) Driver lost control, 41 crashes, 27.5% of total
2.) Following too closely, 28, 19%
3.) Improper lane change, 20, 13%
4.) Speed too fast for conditions, 19, 12.75%
5.) Under the influence, 11, 7%
Total (all causes): 149 crashes