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Deadly crash spurs lawmakers to fix Interstate 65

The spotlight was focused on the dangers of the heavily traveled I-65 route in March 2010 when 11 people were killed in a single crash, just one of a long line of heart-wrenching tragedies that have occurred there in recent years.

By ROGER ALFORD
The Associated Press

4/23/2012

FRANKFORT, Ky. — One of Kentucky's deadliest highway crashes cemented the Legislature's resolve to widen a rural stretch of Interstate 65 that's poised to get $100 million worth of improvements in the next two years.

The spotlight was focused on the dangers of the heavily traveled route in March 2010 when 11 people were killed in a single crash, just one of a long line of heart-wrenching tragedies that have occurred there in recent years. Ironically, the accident had little to do with the width of the highway. It occurred when a tractor-trailer crossed the media and struck a van.

"We've known all along the need for improving that transportation corridor, but accidents like that bring it into clear focus," said Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg.

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Last week, lawmakers gave final passage of a transportation bill that sets aside the $100 million over the next two years to widen I-65 from four to six lanes in portions of Barren, Hardin and Hart counties. A week before, they also approved a road construction plan that calls for about $80 million more to continue the work over the following four years.

For Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Brownsville, the improvements can't come soon enough.

"We had done the averages, and over the past six years there had been 11 fatalities a year," Meredith said. "There had been around 150 injury accidents. In all, it averaged out to be almost one accident a day for the last six years."

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has already taken temporary measures to make the road safer by putting up cable barriers and concrete barriers to prevent motorists who lose control of their vehicles from crossing the median. Those efforts fell short in the 2010 crash when a tractor-trailer slammed through the cable barrier, crossed the median and struck a van. The trucker driver was killed as were 10 members of a Mennonite family in the van.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the truck driver had been distracted by his cell phone.

The tragedy brought changes beyond the widening project. Following a lengthy investigation, the federal agency recommended that truckers be barred from using cell phones while driving.

I-65 runs from Louisville in the north through Bowling Green in the south, slicing through a largely rural landscape. It gets heavy truck traffic.

"The economic value of that transportation corridor cannot be overstated with the flow of goods into, through and out of Kentucky," Givens said. "It's a vital route."

Gov. Steve Beshear signed off a $4.5 billion road construction plan last week that lists hundreds of the state's top transportation projects, including partial funding for a $2.6 billion project to build two bridges across the Ohio River in Louisville. The Legislature passed the appropriations measure to fund those projects at the conclusion of a special legislative session on Friday.

Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, said lawmakers clearly considered the I-65 widening one of the state's top priorities. "Outside the Louisville bridges, that's the largest chunk of money we devoted to construction in this legislative session," Harris said.

Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet, said nearly $10 million was spent in recent years on 44 miles of cable barriers. That was followed, he said, by an initiative to place concrete barriers to separate the northbound and southbound lanes along some 20 miles of the highway.

"This is one of the top-five traveled interstates in the nation," Meredith said. "I think it's also the most dangerous stretch of interstate highway in the country."

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

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