DOT spokesman: Drivers, not the highway, are the problem
State Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said Wednesday the department will look into requests from elected officials to lower speed limits and add more signs on Interstate 95, but nothing will change without people taking responsibility for their driving.
"We do not have a roadway problem," he said. "We have a driver behavior problem."
Following two serious accidents in two days, including one that killed two women, state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, asked the Office of the State Traffic Administration at the DOT Wednesday to set the speed uniformly at 50 miles per hour beginning at the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge over the Connecticut River and past the I-95/395 interchange.
One of this week's crashes along I-95 was in East Lyme and the other was in Old Lyme.
"This speed limit reduction would help improve the safety of our citizens, first responders and commuters/tourists who frequently drive through our region, not to mention reduce traffic along 95 after an accident and, as a result, along Route 1 in Old Lyme and East Lyme," the legislators wrote in a letter to the traffic administration.
"It is a piece of a larger issue that will also take lane expansion and extra police to fix, but the one problem area we can change now is the speed reduction component. We feel the state must do something or else there will continue to be unnecessary fatalities and accidents," they wrote.
Carney said he also is requesting additional signage to alert drivers in advance about the change in the number of lanes that occurs around the Baldwin Bridge area.
Nursick said OSTA would review the request for speed limits and signage.
But Nursick said the limits already are set to reflect the speed that the road configuration can handle. Studies show people drive at the speed they feel comfortable with for the design of the road, he said.
He said "artificially reducing" a speed limit actually could increase the number and severity of crashes by creating a "speed differential" in which some drivers will obey the new, lower speed limit, while many more would continue to drive at a speed they feel comfortable with for the geometry of the road.
"The first line of defense is to get people to voluntarily cooperate with the rules of the road," he said.
Nursick said there were 741 accidents between 2010 and 2014 on the 4.5 mile stretch between exits 71 and 75, both northbound and southbound. The stretch carries from 64,000 to 72,000 vehicles each day.
He said 83 percent of those crashes resulted only in property damage. He said of the two fatal accidents, one was caused by a driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The No. 1 contributing factor to almost 50 percent of those crashes was following too closely, he said.
The second most common factor, at about 16.5 percent of the crashes, was the driver losing control of the vehicle.
A little over 10 percent of the crashes had improper lane changing as the contributing factor.
Traveling too fast for conditions figured in 5.5 percent, and a driver falling asleep at the wheel accounted for just over 4 percent.
"All of these are basic, fundamental driver errors," the spokesman said.
"There is nothing indicating there is anything geometrically wrong with the roadway," he added.
He said unfortunately "there is nothing abnormal with the rate" of crashes in that stretch.
He said when crashes occur, blaming factors other than driver behavior can actually perpetuate irresponsible driving.
He said that the driving public needs to be held accountable and obey the rules of the road to prevent accidents.
"The most important factor in the safety equation is the person behind the wheel," he said, adding that law enforcement and the DOT do have a role in setting basic safety parameters.
A state police spokeswoman, Trooper First Class Kelly Grant, said towns can request extra enforcement and requests then would be evaluated by the state police's office of field operations.
Grant said police patrol for known contributing factors, including speeding, dangerous driving, use of cellphones while driving and tailgating — as well as seat belt use.
"We want to make sure people are wearing their seat belts because it could make the difference from being ejected from your car and staying put," she said.
Grant said causes of accidents vary, but many are the result of a distracted driver.
For example, drivers may become distracted by their phones or GPS system, or by talking to another person in the car, and not notice that traffic stopped, a lane shifted or there is a hazard on the road.
Driver-related contributing factors include “fell asleep”, "driver lost control", "under the influence" and more. Other contributing factors include "slippery surface", "unknown" and more. View a spreadsheet of all contributing factors listed.
Interstate 95 accidents in Old Lyme and East Lyme
Data is for 1995-2014 and shows clustering of accidents. Dark blue dots show the approximate location for each exit along I-95. Zoom in to see more detail, down to 1/10th of a mile.
Data from the UConn Connecticut Crash Data Repository.
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