Friday, June 08, 2001

Interstate 75

Blaming the road is too easy

        They don't call it Death Alley.

        At least not yet.

        Truckers I spoke with this week know about a suddenly lethal stretch of Interstate 75. But they're not ready to blame the road, even though the nine-mile section in Butler and Warren counties has taken a terrible toll.

        Since November, accidents on the highway between the Monroe rest area in the south and the Franklin/Springboro exit to the north have claimed 10 lives.

        The latest fatal accident occurred Monday. A mother and her 3-year-old twin girls were killed.

        “I was on the interstate during that wreck,” said John Wendeln. He knows the route well. For 43 years, he's driven trucks for his Fort Loramie Stone Co.

        “Tires kicked up a fog of spray from the rain,” John said from his truck's cab. “Nobody could see.”

        All of the deadly crashes included a driver crossing the expressway's relatively flat grassy median. Without stopping, the vehicle slammed into traffic going in the opposite direction.

        “See that and it scares the living hell out of you,” said Dwayne Stapleton. He had just parked his Tractor Supply rig to stretch his legs.

        In 15 years of annually driving 100,000 miles, the Anderson, Ind.-based trucker has only seen one crash of the type plaguing I-75.

        He was not alone. Forty percent of the 20 truckers I talked with at the rest area have seen similar tragedies.

        The rash of fatal accidents doesn't puzzle the truckers.

        Many told me what Dwayne did.

        “It's not the road,” he said of the section of highway that saw no fatalities from 1998 through October 2000.

        “It's driver inattention.

        “Drivers are going too fast or nodding off.”

        Location is also a factor.

        “It's between Cincinnati and Dayton,” he said. “People like to gun their engines in open spaces.”

        That's where trouble begins. And lives end.        

Be careful

        The deadly section of I-75 looks safe. No hairpin turns. No steep hills.

        Trees line both sides of the expressway. Three roadside churches proclaim their messages along the way.

        A lone cross on a guard rail along the northbound lane marks the spot where Jeremy Neargarder died. His car crossed the median March 11 and severely injured another driver.

        To keep more crosses from cropping up, solutions have been proposed. Options include rumble strips, speed traps and warning signs.        

Save lives

        Rumble strips wake up sleepy drivers, said Rick Briggs.

        “Their sound tells my students when they're off the road,” added the Andersonville, Tenn., driver who teaches trucker trainees.

        “But at interstate speeds, rumble strips come too late. By the time a driver totally wakes up or tries to regain control of the wheel, he's across the median — and head-on into on-coming traffic.”

        At that point, every trucker said, just pray.

        Paul Vignola believes flashing warning lights would reduce the need for prayers along I-75.

        Taking a break from hauling wood beams, the Rimouski, Quebec, trucker said:

        “God rest the souls who died. But these accidents are man-made.

        “God shouldn't be bothered with what man can fix.”


       Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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