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Crashes common on several Oregon I-5 mountain passes

The hilly, curving section of I-5 that includes Mount Sexton, Smith Hill and Stage Road passes north of Grants Pass is the Bermuda Triangle of Interstate 5 in Oregon, despite warning signs. ODOT plans to add a third truck climbing lane on Sexton beginning in 2013.(ODOT photo)

By JEFF DUEWEL
The Associated Press

11/17/2010

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — One day last week, 43-year-old Bill Costa of Fortuna, Calif., was tooling along in his Dodge pickup truck, northbound on Interstate 5.

He crested 1,730-foot Smith Hill Summit, and started down the hill toward Wolf Creek. It had been raining.

On a sweeping right hand turn, he started fishtailing and rolled his truck. Luckily he and his father were not injured.

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“He told me he was doing the speed limit,” said Oregon State Police Senior Trooper Kirk Melahn. “Most people I talk to tell me they were doing the speed limit and it’s the freeway’s fault.

“People seem to think they’ll have the same traction on wet pavement as dry pavement,” he added.

The hilly, curving section of I-5 that includes Mount Sexton, Smith Hill and Stage Road passes north of Grants Pass is the Bermuda Triangle of Interstate 5 in Oregon, despite warning signs. The No. 1 reason is, simply, drivers going too fast.

Melahn said prior to Costa’s crash there were 10 crashes in two weeks on Smith Hill alone. In the past 16 years the worst months are October and November, when the first heavy rains fall, according to Oregon Department of Transportation figures.

November 2001 (23 crashes), November 1999 (21), November 2005 (20), October 2005 (20), and November 2003 (17) are the worst crash months. Crash numbers are lower in mid winter when conditions are worse, because drivers are more cautious.

“If it’s a rainy weekend, we’ll get six or eight crashes,” said Lonnie Leonard, who founded Caveman Towing in 1972. “It’s been that way since I started the business.”

Actually the last decade it’s been worse. The six-year block 1994 through 1999 had 259 crashes between mileposts 66 and 81, roughly the Hugo to Glendale exits, according to ODOT.

The six years 1999 through 2004 had 393, and the six years 2004 through 2009 had 373.

Of all those crashes, 20 involved fatalities.

The vast majority are caused by people driving too fast and either rolling or skidding off the road. Most of the crashes involve only one car. The age group 20 to 29 has the highest frequency, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday are the three heaviest crash days.

“It’s a major problem,” said Melahn, who said he cites a lot of drivers up there. “They keep wrecking up there, racking them up.”

“I’ve heard a lot of people say they had their cruise control on,” Leonard said.

Former ODOT District Manager John Vial said nowhere else in Oregon else does I-5 have that many curves and steep grades.

In 1994 ODOT repaved the freeway from Hugo to Azalea with a more porous mix of asphalt, called F-mix, which would reduce spray and standing water.

But a fatal wreck in December 1994 was blamed on the new mix, and ODOT cut grooves into the pavement to increase traction. Finally, the whole section was repaved starting in 1997.

ODOT and a construction company settled for $110,000 in the wreck, which killed Illinois Valley High School graduate Kevin DeMersseman, who was 20 years old at the time of the crash.

ODOT said there are no longer any effects from the F-mix used at the time, and statistics indicate that crashes have increased since the F-mix was removed.

Others have blamed banking of the roads, but Vial said extensive tests done on the banks of the curves all show they are within specifications. Melahn added that increased banking on the section just north of Mount Sexton reduced the number of crashes a few years ago.

The number of crashes are spread fairly evenly between Sexton, Smith Hill and Stage Road. From 2004 through 2009, the two-mile stretch either side of the summits showed 86 for Stage Road, 74 for Smith Hill and 65 for Sexton.

In the past 20 years, ODOT has tried to warn drivers. There are electronic reader boards at the Glendale and Hugo interchanges, which actually say the road is slick when wet.

Both southbound and northbound lanes at Smith Hill have amber-colored warning signs for 45 mph, along with large arrows on the especially sharp southbound curve. Southbound Smith Hill also has a 55 mph real speed limit, compared to 65 everywhere else.

ODOT plans to add a third truck climbing lane on Sexton beginning in 2013, and will repave the whole section between Glendale and Hugo. It also wants to add truck-climbing lanes for Smith Hill and Stage Road passes, but funding hasn’t been approved yet.

Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at kevinj@thetrucker.com.

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