Sunday, February 10, 2002

Tunnel is a gateway to rollovers

Truck accidents pose problems for refurbished Lytle Tunnel

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        About once every month, a big truck tips over or loses its load trying to navigate the bobsled-like turn in Lytle Tunnel.

[photo] A large overhead sign and flashing lights warn truckers to slow down as they near the Lytle Tunnel on southbound Interstate 71 approaching Fort Washington Way.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Each time, a critical juncture of Interstates 75 and 71 is shut down for hours — once, for 17. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage is done to the highway.

        And nobody can even guess how many thousands of drivers are left stalled in their cars on one of the most heavily traveled roads in the region.

        More trucks may wreck along this 1,000-foot stretch of highway than at any other spot in the Tristate's 238-mile interstate system. The tunnel is part of a reconstructed Fort Washington Way that was supposed to make downtown driving safer and easier.

        Instead, officials say it's only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed.

        Police and transportation officials say truck drivers are taking the steep curve too quickly. Truckers say the $328 million reconstruction of Fort Washington Way created too tight a turn to connect with the 22-year-old tunnel.

        Whatever the cause, Cincinnati City Council late last month asked the Ohio Department of Transportation to study the speed limit along Fort Washington Way. City transportation officials hope the speed can be lowered from its current 50 mph.

        But ironically, the study may result in the limit being raised to the national interstate standard of 55 mph.

        “Apart from those curves, the conditions do not warrant (the current speed limit),” says Joe Bassil, state traffic maintenance engineer for this region. “My feeling, which will probably be confirmed by the study, is that the highway is now adequate for 55 mph, and we can't legally lower it for just one small stretch.”

        Anything less than lowering the limits altogether would be “unfortunate,” Cincinnati transportation director John Deatrick says. Only a small percentage of trucks using the road wreck, but they're creating a huge problem for everyone else.

        “The impact of an overturn is very great on a very large number of drivers,” Mr. Deatrick says. “This is definitely not a victimless crime.”

Crashes cost

        Since January 2001, shortly after Fort Washington Way opened for full use following the renovation, 13 trucks have wrecked either before, inside or just after the Lytle Tunnel.

        Eleven were conventional big rigs — tractor-trailers loaded with everything from kegs of beer to coils of steel to paper bags. Two were panel trucks like those that deliver furniture or produce.

        Five were traveling northbound, and eight were southbound, according to ARTIMIS, the Tristate's traffic management system.

        All told, there were 95 accidents in the 1.5 miles that make up Fort Washington Way. Twenty-one involved trucks, meaning two of every three wrecked in or near the tunnel.

        A traffic count hasn't been done recently, but traffic officials estimate that as many as 100,000 cars and 20,000 trucks use Fort Washington Way each day.

        And when trucks fall over, the impact is enormous.

        All 13 tunnel accidents forced police to close down the highway for an average 4 hours, 24 minutes, according to ARTIMIS.

        One accident last July shut down the highway for 17 hours. A southbound tractor-trailer tipped over just after exiting the tunnel. It leaked aluminum graphite, slippery substance that created a nightmarish mess to cleanup.

        Limited access to the tunnel and tight quarters inside concrete walls make it even more difficult for crews to clean up. Workers have taken to simply dragging wrecked trucks on their sides to the nearest exit to speed up the process.

        Figures on how many truck tips occurred before the reconstruction began were not immediately available. But Tom Klug, who oversees state highways and interstates in Hamilton County for the state transportation department, says there are more now than ever.

        “It's a big concern because that is a busy, busy gateway,” Mr. Klug says.

        No one has yet been seriously hurt in any of these closures, but police say it's only a matter of time.

        Lt. Robert Hungler, commander of the Cincinnati Police Department's traffic division, tells of an accident last year where the driver of a car saw the truck tipping toward him.

        “He scrunched down on the seat and floor, and wasn't hurt even though the roof was crushed,” Lt. Hungler says. “But he saw it coming. It's only a matter of probability before something more serious happens.”

        Many accidents also cause damage, from minor dents in the road to full-scale destruction of barriers meant to keep traffic from falling off the elevated highway. Last January, a truck carrying a 40,000-pound steel coil tipped over and all but ruined the concrete wall alongside the highway.

        The total bill so far has been more than $300,000, according to Don Gindling, the Fort Washington Way project manager for the city.

        He says the city has filed or plans to file 10 claims against trucking companies involved in the wrecks.

        Just three claims worth $2,929 have been collected so far.

Design or speed?

        Many in the trucking industry believe that they are getting an unfair rap as reckless drivers. They say the highway itself is the main culprit.

        The turns in and out of the tunnel were made sharper when Fort Washington Way was shifted closer to downtown, making it almost impossible to navigate at any speed, they say.

        “It leans the wrong way, among other things,” says Carl Jones, a driver with Sharonville-based Mason Dixon Truck Lines who has been driving locally for 22 years. “We're dealing with almost a 90-degree turn here.”

        Mr. Klug agrees in part, saying drivers can be lulled into complacency because the sharpest part of the curve doesn't come until the end of the tunnel, especially southbound.

        “They see the light at the end of the tunnel and think they're in the clear and put the hammer down just when they are approaching the sharp part of the radius,” Mr. Klug says.

        Mr. Deatrick and other engineers who worked on the project acknowledge that the turn is tighter than before, and that it's one of the few places on the redesigned highway where drivers need to adjust more than once during a turn.

        But they say excessive speed has been a factor in almost every crash in and near the tunnel. Truckers, at least those headed southbound, are ignoring the large, flashing yellow signs warning of potential tips at speeds faster than 40 mph, engineers say. There are plans to put in similar signs for northbound traffic.

        “It was tight, but it would have cost $50 million to replace the tunnel, so it was something we dealt with as a starting point,” says Fred Craig, vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private engineering firm that oversaw the project on the city's behalf.

        Cincinnati traffic engineer Steve Bailey says a phenomenon known as “highway hypnosis” may also be at work, especially for truckers heading south on I-71. The interstate takes vehicles downhill from a wide-open, four-lane highway to the steep curve that enters Fort Washington Way.

        “It's like when you find yourself doing 50 mph in a 25 zone after getting off the interstate,” Mr. Bailey says. “And some of these over-the-road truckers can really go for a long time, and that can distort your sense of speed.”

Placing limits

        This question of excessive speed is why those associated with the Fort Washington Way project are so concerned that the state's study could lead to an even higher speed limit.

        State law prohibits lowering the speed on a section of interstate unless an engineering study shows that it's warranted. In this case, the tunnel passed engineering reviews for interstate design. And, slowing traffic for 1,000 feet could cause even more problems than creating a uniform speed throughout the area, state transportation officials say.

        Truckers such as Mr. Jones are worried about the message that could be sent if the speed limit is raised.

        “They're just asking for people to get killed,” he says.

        Mr. Bassil, the state traffic engineer, cites the exit from eastbound I-74 to northbound I-75, another sharp turn known for truck accidents. The speed limit is 55 mph there, but signs warning trucks to slow down to 25 mph were posted 2 1/2 years ago, leading to a drastic reduction in truck tips. The ramp from I-75 southbound to westbound I-74 has a posted advisory speed of 20 mph.

        Even when the posted speed is 55 mph, drivers at slower speeds can still be cited for reckless driving or driving too fast for conditions, he says.

        Mr. Craig, the Parsons Brinckerhoff engineer, says raising the speed limit would be a concern “if everyone wasn't breaking it already.”

        “Now, you can't drive through there without seeing a truck doing at least 60,” Mr. Craig says. He routinely monitors trucks through the stretch, and last week clocked two taking the turn at 65 mph side-by-side.

        Even if the limit stays at 50 mph, enforcement is difficult, given the tight quarters of the area and of Fort Washington Way itself, Lt. Hungler says.

        “When it comes to trucks, we can pull them over in the trench to tell them to pull off at another exit, but that's about it,” he says. “Then we give them the ticket further up the highway.”

        Ideas to better enforce the speed are being tested.

        One idea involves installation of signs equipped with radar that would flash the current speed at oncoming drivers. Another concept would include the use of remote cameras also equipped with radar to study patterns but not issue tickets.

        Ohio law says that before officers can issue traffic citations, they must visually witness a violation and identify both the vehicle and driver.

        Yet another proposal involves broadcasting a warning over CB radio channels frequented by truckers. The warning would be triggered by a radar device if the trucker's speed exceeds a certain point.

        Officials have ruled out any more warning signs for southbound traffic, saying they could create sensory overload and an even greater hazard.

        “We've got a lot of people impacted by a relatively few number of accidents, so we've got to come up with a solution,” Mr. Deatrick says.

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