Malfunction Junction crashes down 90%

The notoriously accident-prone area once known as “Malfunction Junction” — the Ohio 4 interchange with northbound Interstate 75 — has seen a nearly 90 percent drop in crashes since the completion last year of its redesign and reconstruction, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

Total crashes in the three-mile stretch of I-75 near that interchange fell from as many as 1,237 accidents in 2008 to only 151 last year, according to state highway statistics. This year appears on pace for even fewer crashes, with only 65 accidents in that area, including one fatality, through Aug. 16.

The dramatic drop accidents is attributed to the work done to the interchange as part of the $413 million modernization of I- 75 through the Dayton area that started in 2007.

“Clearly, it has been beneficial to have this project and the outcome of it is successful,” said Sgt. Jeff Kramer, assistant commander of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Dayton post.

Such large-scale projects create construction zones along the interstates with their orange barrels, concrete barriers and traffic congestion. Hundreds of crashes occur in these zones each year.

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Yet, despite these hazards, interstate construction zones aren’t as dangerous as some might think and crashes there rarely result in death, the investigation showed.

Since January 2011, there have been five fatalities from 1,557 total traffic crashes in construction zones on I-75 and I-70 in Montgomery, Warren, Butler and Clark counties. That means the fatal accidents represent less than one-third of 1 percent of those crashes, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of Ohio State Highway Patrol crash statistics. That mirrors the percentage of fatal accidents that occur on unrestricted sections of interstates in Ohio.

Interstate system

A low percentage of fatal accidents occur even though the nation’s interstate highway system is under extreme stress. Originally designed in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration to allow quick transfer of military vehicles, much of the system is at or beyond its intended service life and subjected to traffic weights and volumes well in excess of its orginal design assumptions, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

“The design of anything has a life and it requires ongoing maintenance in order to maintain that life,” said Richard Miller, director of regional business development for CDS Associates, a Blue Ash-based highway engineering firm. “No matter what road or bridge is designed, you are going to have to resurface to keep the pavement operable and safe,” he said.

The interstate system carried 65 million vehicles in 1956 when it was launched by the Federal Highway Act. In 2010, that number had nearly quadrupled to 242 million, according to highway administration data.

Ohio’s highways are critical to the health of the state’s economy. Annually, $563 billion in goods are shipped from sites in Ohio and another $493 billion in goods are shipped to sites in Ohio, mostly by truck, according to The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington, D.C.-based national transportation research group.

The average daily vehicle count on I-75 is 93,006 in Montgomery County; 90,913 in Warren County; and 117,000 in Butler County, according to Ohio Department of Transportation officials. The average on I-70 in Clark County is 52,479 vehicles.

“Overall, the current state of I-75 needs to be updated to serve the needs of modern traffic and that is what we are in the process of doing,” said Mandi Abner, an ODOT spokeswoman.

The goal of the ongoing I-75 modernization project is to reduce congestion by creating three continuous traffic lanes in both directions through Dayton, and to improve safety by allowing for higher traffic volumes and eliminating left lane entrance and exit ramps, Abner said.

ODOT crews recently completed the widening I-70 in Clark County, and are close to completing the widening and realignment of I-75 in Warren and Butler counties.

Construction costs

Interstate reconstruction projects ultimately create a smoother ride for motorists, but they are not without high costs.

The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association estimates that it will cost from $1.3 trillion to $2.5 trillion to rebuild the nation’s interstate highways over the next 50 years.

The Highway Revenue Act of 1956 created the Highway Trust Fund as a dedicated funding source for the interstate system. Federal gas and other motor-vehicle user tax revenues are credited to the Highway Trust Fund to pay the federal share of interstate highway projects.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act approved in 2009 provided about $935.7 million in stimulus funding for highway and bridge improvements in Ohio.

Work zone safety

Interstate work zones are designed for the safety of both motorists and construction workers, Miller said. CDS’s projects have included the Reed Hartman Highway in Blue Ash. The company is not involved in the I-75 modernization project.

Highway engineers plan work zones according to standards for minimum shoulder width, barrel placement and other safety factors, Miller said. Construction zone speed limits usually are “significantly lower than the regular speed limit on the roadway when it is open to normal traffic,” he said.

ODOT construction zone set-up follows state and federal guidelines for work zone safety, Abner said. ODOT inspectors regularly travel the zones, and contractors watch the areas throughout the day to make sure items such as signs and barrels are in place.

“We are unable to account for driver behavior, but we do everything we can to make the zone as clear and safe as as possible,” Abner said.

Still, fatal accidents in work zones happen, and they can be devastating.

On July 13, two vehicles both mistakenly entered what was supposed to be a blocked construction lane on I-75 in West Carrollton within minutes of one another and literally drove into huge hole in the highway. The driver of the second vehicle, retired Detroit police officer Charles Rice, died in the crash.

“I pray to God that this doesn’t have to happen to anyone else, because these have been some trying times for me and my family,” said Dion Rice of Detroit, the victim’s son.

Southwest Ohio’s work zones have seen a total of 396 injury crashes and 1,143 property damage crashes since January 2011, according to highway patrol data.

“Any time you have that much traffic going in different patterns and narrower lanes, you are going to see crashes,” said the Dayton post’s Sgt. Kramer. The majority of area construction zone crashes “seem to be minor,” he said.

Speed is the leading cause of construction zone crashes, according to Kramer. Frequent speed-related factors in crashes include following too close; traveling at an unsafe speed for road conditions; and traveling at a normal highway speed in a reduced speed zone, he said.

Patrolling construction zones presents a unique problem for highway patrol officers because many zones lack space from which officers can observe traffic. “It is not safe for the officers; it is not safe for a violator that gets pulled over there,” Kramer said.

Officers often are forced to commute through the zones to patrol them for violators, broken down vehicles or signs in roadways.

“You have to bear the burden of construction, especially on the interstate system,” Kramer said. “The reality is when it is all completed, it will easily reduce the number of crashes,” he said.

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