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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
April 24, 2019

3/20/2019 8:27:00 PM
Solutions not easy on road carnage
For the Daily News

It was not a Happy St. Patrick's Day for everyone. I grew up here. Going to Vincennes for pizza because you couldn't get one here or Terre Haute to shop because the shops here didn't have what we wanted was routine but not usual. That is, we would do it now and then, but not all the time.

We have a plethora of pizza now, with more on the way and even though none of it tastes like Bobe's to me, it's all good and I support local merchants and buy local whenever possible - but I don't count Walmart as local since they're an Arkansas outfit.

Once in great while we would go to Indianapolis, the big city for us, and would spectate at the 500 or go to one of the then new shopping malls where all the stores were smooshed together and put under one roof. It seemed convenient in a way and made shopping in bad weather, like for Christmas, a nicer thing than St. Louis, for instance, where you had a couple of blocks of outdoor hiking to do to get between the two big department stores downtown.

This all got linked together by Interstate 70, which made it faster to do and supposedly safer. Well, it's not safe, and although I made the decision some time ago to stop taking I-70 to Indianapolis myself, I give voice to it now as a public service announcement. There are more deaths on I-70 between the Illinois state line and Indy than on any other rural stretch of any interstate anywhere in the country. See That's my opinion, anyway, which is all I'm giving here.

The reason is fairly simple. The highway is full of trucks going faster than they can stop driven by men and women in an environment that invites distraction. I've driven tractor-trailers, and done so cross-country, so I know what it's like and I also know they are far and away they are safest traveling companions on the roads statistically. It may seem to them that cars full of amateur drivers are the problem, or watching too much NASCAR perhaps, but it's a simpler problem to solve for me.

Yes, I can get from here to there quicker if I can drive faster doing it, and yes again, going with the flow of everyone going faster means we can all get there in less time. The problem comes with the numbers. They drive so many more miles than those of us who don't do so for a living that the odds are not in our favor.

Limiting access to the flowing group eliminates disruption in the flow, so ideally there would be as few on- and off-ramps as possible, and there would be guardrails at the edge of the road to keep errant vehicles from leaving the highway and connecting with some stationary object and killing its occupants.

Young readers would be horrified if they knew the roads I grew up with here in Illinois. There were no speed limits outside of town and "reasonable and proper" was the standard. In my family that meant 100 miles an hour in a time of no seat belts and metal dashboards, because we had cars that would go that fast and they wouldn't have made them to do it if they weren't supposed to. Would they?

Along the side of the road were sawed-off telephone poles stuck in the shoulder with a metal cable run through them. They always looked ominous to me, whizzing past, but then we all managed to keep on the road whenever possible; it was a survival skill to be a good driver.

Paying attention to your surroundings and your speed were key to staying alive, and they still are, which brings us back to why I think I-70 is a death trap. When traffic comes to a stop, as it often does there for one reason or another, there are places where a truck traveling 70 or 80 miles an hour can come upon a group of parked cars and trucks and not have time left to avoid hitting the parked vehicles.

I'm not excusing the carnage, simply pointing out that 80,000 pounds of anything moving at that speed needs a certain distance of space to stop in with a reaction time from recognition of "oh, no, they're not moving.." to impact of seconds during which 117 feet were covered with each one. Over the hill and into the line of sight; recognition of stopped traffic; initial application of brakes; then maximum application; then locked wheels, which actually take longer to stop a vehicle then impact. No car crash test was ever designed to withstand being hit from behind by a semi while standing still behind another semi.

The young man who died most recently in his Buick this past weekend was doing exactly that. He sitting and waiting on I-70 for traffic to move. He was last in line and there was a brief time during which he might have seen the truck coming behind him before it hit his car, bursting it into flames, and killing him. I never want to be that guy, and my heart goes out to him and his family. If I can avoid being that guy, I will, and if I can help you avoid it too, I will write something like this so you can think about the choices you make when you choose a road or a departure time to be somewhere else.

I first encountered an accident like this near Indy some years ago while returning from a race in Michigan. A burnt-out hulk of a family sedan was being pulled out from between two trucks who had sandwiched it between them when the following truck had failed to stop in time. The family was coming home from a vacation somewhere and the shoulder was littered with bicycles and clothes and toys. The ambulances where loading up the remains as we sat and watched and it occurred to me then that no matter how good a driver I was out here between the guardrails, or how well I could move in and out of traffic as we drove alone together, that there was nothing I could do to avoid being like them once the line of traffic stopped and there was nowhere to go.

That is why I don't take I-70 to Indianapolis. I do take the interstate elsewhere, and there are other places where I avoid it, like Atlanta, based upon similar history. The risk is too great for me now and I don't feel lucky if I've put myself in a situation where I am no longer in control of how things can turn out. Yes, it does take longer to get places using secondary roads and there are more stop signs and traffic lights to be dealt with, but there are not nearly as many trucks of that size and I feel better about my chances of getting the people I care about where they want to go than if I just relied on the airbags that came with the car. Oh, didn't we get a recall on those? (yes, we did, actually so there is that).

There are probably solutions for this problem that involve lower speed limits, stricter enforcement and so forth, but the American driver's insistence on the freedom to drive however the hell he wants most often finds expression on the four lanes or more of an interstate, and they are unreasonable once they get their hands on a steering wheel or their foot on a gas pedal.

I'd like to cool their temper without getting their blood up, but I don't have that sort of insight or power. If it cost money to cure, then it will take more tax dollars to pay for and right now we're not inclined to do anything for the greater good that doesn't play well on Fox News.

So while I can't cure the problem for all of us, I can suggest some relief for the cautious and point out that I've been driving from Illinois to Terre Haute for longer than many of you have been alive. Go to Marshall on Route 1, take 40 east; enjoy the ride. Safe travels.

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