BY RACHEL MELCER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
DEARBORN COUNTY, Ind. -- Every day, families who live along Ind. 1 between Interstate 74 and U.S. 50 take their lives into their hands. Each time they pull out of a driveway, watch their kids board a school bus, or mow their lawns, they are afraid.
They worry that today will be the day that a semitrailer truck, speeding down the narrow, winding road, careens out of control and claims a life.
So far, police say, there are many more routine traffic stops than accidents along Ind. 1.
But something needs to be done to avert a disaster. That's the message Sheriff J. David Wismann, state police, the Route 1 Safety Committee, local legislators and county commissioners took to the capital. Gov. Frank O'Bannon took their complaints to heart, chartered a task force and ordered it to figure out what to do this summer.
The results could make the drive down Ind. 1 easier not only for residents, but for patrons of the nearby Perfect North Slopes ski area, Argosy Casino Lawrenceburg and Grand Victoria Casino and Resort in Rising Sun.
As a state route, Ind. 1 is part of the national highway system -- which federal law says must be open to commercial truck traffic. And truckers driving between Indiana and Kentucky are drawn to Ind. 1 because, unlike the stretch of I-275 they are trying to avoid, the largely rural route does not cross into Ohio. That means they can bypass delays at roadside scales and additional registration fees and taxes.
"There are a lot of fees just to get between one point and the next," said Tisha Eder, director of safety services for the Indiana Motor Truck Association.
Residents of the roughly 16-mile stretch of Ind. 1 between St. Leon and Lawrenceburg say saving money doesn't justify losing a life. They worry about elderly drivers as well as the Sunman-Dearborn and Lawrenceburg district school buses that vie with trucks for space on the road.
"We have people who are afraid to get out and drive -- mainly older people who need to get out to the grocery store and the doctor's office," said Marie Connolly, who has lived on Ind. 1 just south of Dover since 1956.
"If you travel the road, you see nothing but skid marks from the sudden stops," she said. "The thing that bothers us the most is the speed of the trucks, the amount of trucks there are and the wide loads."
Nancy Lyle, a Sunman-Dearborn School District bus driver, said she and her co-workers monitor their citizens' band radios and use them to warn truckers when they are about to make a stop. Local truck drivers and those familiar with the route are generally attentive -- but Ms. Lyle has heard other truckers use their CBs to tell school bus drivers to speed up.
"I'm sure an accident will happen. It's just a matter of meeting a truck on one of those bends at the right time, that's all it's going to take," Ms. Lyle said.
With the decline of rail transportation and a commercial trend away from warehousing goods, the trucking industry has boomed. Mr. O'Bannon says the number of trucks traversing his state has doubled over the past 15 years -- making conflicts like those along Ind. 1 commonplace.
The cost of commerce
"There's a problem all over the state," he told Dearborn County officials and members of the Route 1 Safety Committee at a recent meeting. "We've got to look at it straight on and see what we can do."
Ms. Eder said she and other representatives of the state Motor Truck Association are "more than anxious" to work with the task force. But unlike residents along Ind. 1, they cannot support a total ban on commercial trucks, which move nearly 84 percent of all manufactured freight in the state.
"Trucks have just as much right to be on the road as anyone else," she said.
According to the most recent available traffic count from the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT), 2,338 semitrucks with two or more axles traveled on Ind. 1 in November. Forty-five buses, 751 pickup trucks, 3,137 cars and 13 motorcycles also made the trip.
Sheriff Wismann said the narrow road -- which started out as a cowpath -- was not built to accommodate that kind of traffic. His officers, along with the state police, have stepped up patrols and take every opportunity to warn truckers away.
Deputies issued 460 warnings and 290 tickets to all kinds of vehicles on Ind. 1 in the first five months of this year. That's an increase from the 108 warnings and 52 citations made in all of 1997. And sheriff's police handled 27 accidents there in January through June; 53 were reported last year.
But Indiana State Police Maj. Robert Seifert said officers are often unable to pull trucks over or conduct roadside inspections because there is little, if any, shoulder space on Ind. 1.
Bill Yelton, owner of Yelton Inc., a trucking company that hauls sand and gravel on Ind. 1 from Lawrenceburg to Brookville, blames the community's problems on interstate companies that he says have no business on local roads.
So, he is willing to let authorities pull trucks over in a vacant lot he owns at Ind. 1 and U.S. 50 in Greendale.
"If they started with inspections (on Ind. 1), the whole problem would be eliminated," Mr. Yelton said.
The big picture
But officials and safety committee members want a more permanent solution. To ban through truck traffic, 1 would have to be removed from the national system; or the state could turn it over to Dearborn County.
The county commission in May offered to take over a 3-mile stretch of Ind. 1 which straddles the I-74 interchange -- to block truck access to the highway. But INDOT says it cannot release just a portion of the 16-mile route. County officials say they cannot afford upkeep of the entire road.
"Right now, the fate of Route 1 lies in INDOT's hands," said County Commissioner Mark Dole.
Phillip Schermerhorn Jr., INDOT deputy commissioner for public, community and legislative affairs, said his agency would make repairs designed to last at least 10 years before relinquishing the road. And the county would receive additional state gas tax revenue for its continued upkeep.
Another possibility is that State Sen. Johnny Nugent or Rep. Bob Bischoff -- both of whom volunteered for the task force -- could sponsor legislation to leave Ind. 1 in state hands, but remove it from the national highway system.
But INDOT officials do not want to begin tearing pieces out of the state's 11,300-mile network of national highway system roads. If one community succeeds in doing so, others are sure to follow. And the state would lose federal highway money if that were to happen.
"There are as many unique problems in the state as there are cities and towns," Mr. Schermerhorn said. "I think it's like opening the Pandora's box if we start pulling roads off of the national system . . . and then you wind up with a patchwork transportation system."
Ken Maddin, an Ind. 1 resident and chairman of the grass-roots safety committee, said he will serve on the governor's task force and keep members' feet to the fire until a solution is found.
"We're asking these officials to help us divert a big disaster," he said. "It's not a matter of if there will be a big crash here one day, it's a matter of when."