Published November 06. 2007 4:00AM Updated December 15. 2009 2:12PM
East Lyme — Is it the road, or is it the drivers?
The debate over the stretch of Interstate 95 near the site of Friday's fatal six-vehicle accident near Exit 75 in East Lyme has reignited.
On Monday, state and local legislators held a press conference with the highway as a backdrop to seek action. Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered the state Department of Transportation to put up concrete Jersey barriers “as soon as possible.”
While the politicians held court, police cruisers sat on both sides of Interstate 95, near where an out-of-control tanker truck driven by a Massachusetts man careened from the northbound lanes into southbound traffic, killing three motorists.
About a mile from the crash site, a mobile radar unit on the highway's northbound side flashed the speed of each passing vehicle.
While some point to Friday's crash, plus a tractor-trailer rollover near the same spot on Saturday, as evidence of the highway's inherent danger, others look elsewhere: Eyewitnesses said the tanker-truck driver was speeding and tailgating, and the driver in Saturday's rollover told police he was cut off on a rain-slicked roadway.
Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, said motor-vehicle crash statistics are normally analyzed by looking at fatalities per million vehicles — or, more often, per hundred million vehicles — over several years.
While those numbers were not immediately available on Monday, more limited data provided to Schofer, who has not studied southeastern Connecticut specifically, did not appear to translate into what experts typically consider a problem: 102 accidents in 2006, none fatal, for a stretch of road with about 82 million vehicle-miles traveled annually.
Schofer said it is “really important to be cautious about this,” to study the factors of the crash and what might have been done to prevent it or reduce it.
“You have to be realistic about this. You don't want to sell people snake oil; you don't want to sell a solution that isn't a solution,” Schofer said. “Causality is really important — not getting fooled into guilt by association, where 'I drive this roadway and it scares me,' and then there's a terrible crash.”
Politicians called on the governor and the Department of Transportation to make immediate safety improvements to I-95 around the accident site, but said further work will be necessary, including the widening of the interstate and completion of the long-delayed interchange with Route 11 and Interstate 395.
Despite the pledge, officials said they wanted more than what the governor ordered on Monday.
“That's a start,” said Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, whose district includes East Lyme and the segment of highway in question. “But she needs to come here. She needs to come to southeastern Connecticut and see what we are dealing with.”
Stillman finished one more sentence before a piercing screech interrupted her — a car nearly rear-ending another on the onramp at Exit 75, just a few dozen feet from the press conference.
Stillman and Reps. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme and Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, along with town officials from East Lyme, called for a number of safety improvements in addition to the widening of the interstate, which would take years to complete even by conservative estimates.
Among the changes they proposed were improving signs in the area to warn out-of-town drivers to slow down, increasing speeding enforcement by state police in the area and closing the Exit 75 on-ramp to I-95 from Boston Post Road, which they said requires an unsafe merge across busy lanes of traffic for drivers attempting to get on Interstate 395 North.
Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the state DOT, said the agency will follow the governor's order to install Jersey barriers as soon as possible but doesn't yet have a timeline. Nursick said the department needs to settle on a design and decide upon the type of barriers used.
The DOT already planned to put up barriers, he said, on the section of highway between the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and the Baldwin Bridge as part of a “modernization process.” Nursick said the agency might break out a smaller project to put in barriers in the area where Friday's accident occurred.
The DOT, on the governor's orders, will also repaint the highway lines near Exit 73.
John Ivan, the associate head of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut, said his research is primarily in rural roads — which is where more people are killed, he said.
“If we want to save lives, that's the better, more effective place to put our efforts,” Ivan said.
“I think the interstate highway accidents tend to be bigger and they get a lot more attention, but if you ask the guys who drive the Life Star helicopters where do they usually go to pick up people,” said Ivan, “it's not the interstate for the most part.”
•••••Friday morning's crash killed Lu-Ann Dugas, 54, of East Lyme; Fred Held, 33, of Milford; and Peter M. Derry III, 51, of Webster, Mass. Derry was driving the tanker truck that police say crossed from the northbound lanes to the southbound lanes, where it struck a tractor-trailer driven by James J. Clark of Patchogue, N.Y.
Clark is hospitalized with unspecified injuries at Stony Brook University Medical Center on Long Island after having first been treated at The William W. Backus Hospital. He declined to talk to The Day Monday.
Witnesses have said the tanker truck was speeding in the moments leading up to the crash.
When a reporter visited Danielson to obtain a comment from the Scott family, which owns the tanker company where Derry worked, a member of the Scott family said the company would not be speaking to the media and would not answer questions about the crash, company policies or company equipment.
The speed limit there, in both directions, is 50 mph — a rarity for interstates, according to Roy Lucke, associate director of Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety.
“The fact that it's a 50 (mph) limit on an interstate sort of does indicate that there are some issues there, because that's a very low interstate speed limit,” Lucke said. “The design speed of interstates is usually considerably higher.”
He said the center worked on a project a few years ago, modeled after a system of variable speed limits used in Europe. There, LED signs post a speed limit that changes depending on weather conditions, traffic volume, construction and the like.
For the system to work, he said, there needs to be strict enforcement of the speed limit, often accomplished through automated enforcement — such as cameras that capture license plate numbers of speeders.
The idea is controversial in the United States.
“We seem to feel like, if you got me, you got me ... sending it to me through the mail is not the American way, but in most of the rest of the world, that is exactly what happens,” he said.
Lucke said studies are currently underway to demonstrate the effectiveness of automated enforcement. Some states, more in the western part of the country, allow it, he said.
According to Nursick, the state DOT spokesman, there are no statutes allowing automated enforcement in Connecticut.
Said Lucke: “There is presumably a good reason that the highway people said that the most realistic speed limit here is 50, but if you don't make people go 50, then the limit isn't worth the paint used to make the sign.”
The problem, he said, is that some stretches of road can be difficult to do enforcement. He questioned whether it helps or hurts to put a police car with a radar gun on the highway's shoulder, and how effectively police could pull into traffic to make a stop.
The traffic pressures are complicated, the lawmakers said, by the increase in tourism to southeastern Connecticut, and particularly the traffic to the casinos.
“Those people all come in cars right now, because we don't have a transportation system that is equipped to move folks who are coming for tourism to this part of Connecticut,” said Ritter. “We have some rail. That works for commuters if you're in New Haven, but that doesn't work for us here.”
•••••At the press conference near I-95, support for changes to the highway was unanimous. Jutila said he was “extremely disappointed with the seemingly matter-of-fact attitude” of the DOT toward calls for improvements. But all also conceded that the changes they sought —especially widening I-95 and completing Route 11 — were far off, even if the state heeded their calls to speed up the projects.
Staff writer David Collins contributed to this report.