Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Truckers need to slow down
in Lytle Tunnel


Driver error to blame, not design, officials say

By James Pilcher jpilcher@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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A semi driven by Christopher Seteu of Canton tipped over on northbound I-71 at the entrance to the Lytle Tunnel Monday. The 45,000 coil of steel that the truck was carrying lies next to the cab.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        As he lowers the speed on his 18-wheeler to about 40 mph to enter the Lytle Tunnel, veteran trucking safety official Randy Russell can't help but notice how many of his big-rig driving counterparts are not doing the same. In fact, he sees some of them doing the opposite.

        “I can't imagine what these guys are thinking,” said Mr. Russell, safety director for Wilmington-based R&L Carriers, with a nod to other trucks streaking by, some doing at least 60 mph.

        The mindset of the other truckers, and how to change it, is just what frustrated Ohio highway officials are trying to figure out, given the 1,000-foot tunnel has been hit with another rash of tip-overs - including one Monday. The tip-overs cause delays and pose the potential for injuries or fatalities, because the tunnel is an entrance and exit for Fort Washington Way, used by 20,000 trucks and 100,000 other vehicles daily.

        The officials have even started thinking about such systems as CB radio warning devices that would broadcast advisories about the tunnel to truckers a half-mile to a mile away from it.

        “The thinking is that they would slow down enough in time, so that when they speed up (inside the tunnel), they are not in trouble,” said Joe Bassil, traffic engineer for the Ohio Department of Transportation's District 8. “Most of the accidents are happening when drivers feel they have cleared the tunnel, but in fact are just about to hit the hard part.”

        Monday's accident involved a truck carrying a 45,000-pound roll of steel flipping about 11 a.m. Northbound I-71 was closed for four hours. Driver Paul A. Barie, 45, of Pembroke, N.Y., was cited for failure to control. No one was hurt.

        There have now been three tip-overs at the tunnel this month and 10 this year - as many as tipped over in all of 2001 - according to data collected by ARTIMIS, the region's traffic management system. No one has been seriously hurt in any of the accidents.

        Area transportation and law enforcement officials have stressed all along that the problem is being caused by drivers traveling through the tunnel too fast - coupled with unsecured loads. Cincinnati police officials add that the department has been using overtime to patrol the area, but there are few places to set up a speed patrol safely along Fort Washington Way.

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        “We realize that this is ultimately a safety issue,” Mr. Bassil said. “We are continually working on it, because we don't want to have someone hurt. We've been fortunate so far, probably because it is a slow process for the truck to tip over. But that doesn't mean it won't happen.”

        Mr. Russell, who offered his observations of the curves both northbound and southbound during a drive-through last week in an empty tractor-trailer, agreed.

        “I don't see it as a hazard, if you are doing 40-45 mph and have a secure load,” Mr. Russell said. “If there are turnovers there, it's driver error or it's an unsecured load shifting, or a combination of both. I can see it as a real hazard with a top-heavy load even at 55 mph.”

        The tunnel has a legal posted speed limit of 55 mph, raised from 50 mph by state transportation officials this spring to make it uniform with the rest of the interstate.

        However, the posted advisory speed for trucks - 40 mph - is displayed on large yellow signs in both directions.

        Mr. Russell stressed that he thought the tunnel was safe if posted speeds are obeyed, saying the fact that no tanker trucks (carrying non-hazardous items ranging from milk to animal fats) have ever tipped indicates that it can be navigated without incident.

        “Tanker drivers are having their loads shift all the time, so they really have to know what they're doing,” he said. “If they haven't tipped over, that tells me that it's not a design issue; it's a driver issue.” (Tankers and other trucks carrying hazardous or flammable materials are banned from the tunnel.)

        But Mr. Russell did offer some observations that could make the tunnel safer.

        He noted that northbound drivers could not see the caution signs - which are blocked by a hill and the Main Street bridge across the Fort Washington Way trench - until almost right under them. Signs headed southbound are mixed in with signs for Third Street, another steep curve 1/2ndash 3/4 making it a little confusing, he said.

        “It's also a little crowned,” he said, pointing out that the highway is sloped away from the turn in some points in both directions.

        Mr. Bassil acknowledged the “crowning,” but said the design met federal and local standards.

        And he said the signs are not exactly where he would like them, but that the new bridges in the trench of Fort Washington Way can't support larger signs. And more signs could mean a visual distraction in an already congested area, he said, adding that the state would like to keep the “aesthetic” feel of the highway - redesigned in the late 1990s at a cost of $328 million.

        The CB system, used along stretches of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and in Louisville, would be another option. Mr. Bassil said he was meeting with representatives of the manufacturer of the system, called The Wizard, this week.

        Another veteran R&L driver said that such a system could work in the short term, but is doubtful about the long haul.

        “A lot of times, the drivers just start tuning them out,” said Rich Savoie, who has driven 3 million miles without an accident in 24 years at R&L.

        Mr. Savoie, who drives through the 22-year-old tunnel at least twice a week, said that the tunnel is much harder to navigate since the Fort Washington Way redesign. But he knows to take it slow.

        “It can go over really easy if you have a full load that is top heavy,” Mr. Savoie said.

        “If you start (tipping) over here,” said Mr. Russell while driving southbound through the tunnel, “you probably don't have a prayer. The issue then becomes to make sure you don't go over, and that's all in your speed management.”

       



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