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Elected officials said they will continue to press for I-95 improvements

Elected officials said Thursday they will continue to push for safety enhancements along Interstate 95 in Old Lyme and East Lyme, even as a state Department of Transportation spokesman said Wednesday that driver behavior, not the roadway, is the issue.

"I think blaming drivers is the easy way out," said Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook. "We've seen horrific accidents in this area."

In the wake of two accidents on I-95 this week, one in East Lyme and the other in Old Lyme, legislators and local officials requested improvements, from reducing the speed limit to additional signage.

Carney and state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, urged the Office of the State Traffic Administration, to set the speed limit at 50 MPH from the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge to at least the I-95/I-395 interchange.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said Wednesday the department will consider the requests. 

But he said the rate of accidents along the I-95 stretch is unfortunately normal and points to driver error, rather than deficiencies in the roadway.

Elected officials disagreed Thursday.

They said that while driver behavior is an issue overall, it needs to be countered with stepped-up police enforcement and safety upgrades on the dangerous road that faces issues, like inadequate break-down lanes and poor visibility at points for drivers.

Legislators pointed out that the state had implemented safety measures, like additional signage, following a major accident in 2007 around Exit 75 in East Lyme. 

Similarly to signs in that area, Carney said signs should be installed to alert drivers, in advance, to the reduction of lanes by the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge. 

Additional police presence and increased breakdown lanes should also be used to counteract the problem.

"I think we owe it to our constituents to try to stop lives from being lost," he said.

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder agreed with the DOT that driver behavior is a factor in accidents — but one of many. She said another factor is the layout of I-95 at points.

For example, drivers along I-95 North are faced with the reduction of lanes around the Baldwin Bridge and also immediately coming into a sharp curve.

"People are surprised by that," she said.  

Due to the layout of I-95, it can be challenging for state police troopers to have sufficient room to pull a driver over, she added.

Ongoing construction, which is to install jersey barriers and other improvements from Exits 70 to 72,  also "creates a very high-risk area."

Reemsnyder suggested increasing the visibility of police cars to deter speeding, adding more warning signs, and considering a speed limit reduction.

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said that while DOT isn't to blame for the aging roadway that needs to be upgraded, he wholeheartedly disagreed that the rate of accidents is normal.

He said the stretch of roadway, whether it's due to the topography, the system of on and off ramps, or having a narrow road in a potentially darker area, "ends up being a deathtrap."

He again called for signs to alert drivers of the dangers and recommended restricting trucks to the right lane only between the Baldwin Bridge and Exit 74.

Between 1995 and 2013, East Lyme from Exit 71 (Four Mile River Road) to the split with I-395 had the highest number of fatalities and injuries in the state east of the Connecticut River: 745, or about a quarter of the crashes that injured or killed.

Formica, state senator for the 20th district, said that while distracted driving is at an all-time high — due to cell phone use and other distractions — the stretch of East Lyme and Old Lyme has a high pattern of accidents.

He urged increased police enforcement, and said lowering the speed limit may also help slow traffic down and prevent accidents. 

He said holding drivers' accountable — as Nursick said — is a part of the equation.

"Let's do a combination of all these things to stop what seems to be the higher than normal number of accidents and human casualties," he said.

Eric Jackson, the director of the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center, said it can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly is causing accidents, but it’s typically a combination of factors.

He said he hasn't studied the geometry of I-95 in Old Lyme and East Lyme, but said the data doesn't show that it stands out as a "hot spot for accidents," compared to areas, like Greenwich. 

Generally-speaking, he said poor driving behavior can exacerbate problems with a roadway that an alert driver would pick up on.

“If someone is distracted or impaired they’re going to have difficulty navigating, because they don’t have the reaction time to deal with a problem,” he said.

In the short-term, he said the key is enforcement and monitoring the roadway.

He said posted speed limits won’t change driver behavior. But he said when drivers get used to seeing a police trooper out there, they get the message to start slowing down or stop using their phone.

He said researchers began in 2015 to collect data on distracted driving. The state DOT has public awareness campaigns targeted at children to speak up if they see their parents are distracted while driving.

He said similar campaigns for seatbelt use were very effective.

“It’s definitely an emerging problem and issue that the DOT is being forced to address,” he said.

k.drelich@theday.com

Twitter: @KimberlyDrelich

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