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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014
Pasco Tribune

Fewer crashes, more fatalities in stretch of I-75 widening

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WESLEY CHAPEL - The 4-mile stretch of interstate between state roads 54 and 56 has produced its share of white-knuckle moments.

A mix of construction zone concrete barriers, shortened shoulder widths, a change in asphalt levels, and lane shifts will do that.

Despite the numerous obstacles, accidents in that area have declined, according to crash data reports released by the Florida Department of Transportation. But more severe accidents have occurred. Since 2012, three people have died in accidents in the construction zone.

The project to widen Interstate 75 from four lanes to eight between State Road 54 and 56, a $23 million endeavor, began March 4, 2011.

Between Jan. 5, 2009 and March 11, 2011, before construction began, there were 161 crashes between state roads 54 and 56.

There were 72 crashes in 2009, one of which resulted in a fatality, 74 crashes in 2010 and 15 crashes in 2011.

After the start of construction, from April 4, 2011 to Dec. 30, 2012, there were 110 crashes - 35 for the remainder of 2011 and 75 in 2012. One of the wrecks in 2012 was a fatality accident. Two fatalities occurred this year in separate accidents. FDOT did not have data on the number of accidents this year.

"There's very little room for error when it comes to construction zones," Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins said. "Like a normal, wide open interstate, you'll have an emergency lane on the inside and outside shoulders for corrections if you have to take evasive action or if you drift off the road. . I still put a lot of this on the drivers. You have to drive with caution at all times, especially when you're in a construction zone, whether the workers are present or not."

FDOT spokesman John McShaffrey agrees that it is imperative drivers not allow themselves to be distracted while operating their vehicle.

"The one thing to keep in mind, through these construction zones, it's extra important to have your full attention to driving because you've got a number of things to consider," McShaffrey said. "We usually have concrete barrier walls up, which usually means reduced to almost no shoulders - typically not enough for vehicles to pull off if they have issues like an accident or a flat tire or they run out of gas, whatever the case may be."

Lane closures have taken place during the late night and early morning hours in an effort to avoid further obstacles for drivers during heavy road use hours.

McShaffrey said despite the many changes that greet drivers from one day to the next, including lane shifts or the adding or removing of asphalt, the lanes have remained the standard 12 feet in width.

Even with all the precautions taken, there have been serious crashes along that stretch this year.

In March, an early morning collision between a mail-carrying semi and a concrete barrier produced an inferno that incinerated hundreds of pieces of third-class mail. No one was injured, but traffic on that portion of highway was diverted for most of the day.

A woman, whose car broke down on the side of the interstate in that same area, was killed on May 23 when she was struck by another vehicle.

Kerry Rose Ruiz, 22, was standing at the right front of her vehicle, which was parked just north of State Road 54 and facing north on the east shoulder of I-75 about 3:30 p.m., according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

At some point, she ran out in front of an Isuzu truck towing a boat. The driver of the truck attempted to avoid Ruiz, but couldn't. She died at the scene.

Two days prior, on May 21, John Conrad Porter, 61, was killed when a dump truck pulled out in front of the car he was driving, causing a wreck, according to FHP.

Conrad was driving his 2012 Hyundai about 10:42 a.m. south on Interstate 75, just past State Road 56, when the dump truck, driven by Cristobal L. Cepero, 49, carrying a load of dirt, entered the southbound lane from the shoulder. The dump truck was part of the construction crew.

Porter's wife, Mary Ann Porter, 58, and granddaughter, Natalia Muncie, were airlifted to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

John Porter died at the scene.

At the outset of the widening project, construction was expected to wrap up in May, but the contractor, Better Roads, Inc., won't finish until this fall, McShaffrey said.

When work is completed, the company will pay a $5,809.88 fine for each day over the completion date.

That means for at least the next two months, drivers must continue to navigate the daunting construction zone.

In addition to driver's safety, those who do the actual work must also be protected. That's why speed limits can drop from 70 mph to 60, signs are erected and concrete barriers are strategically placed to separate workers from fast-moving vehicles.

In the end, it's about drivers keeping their eyes on the road; with that, McShaffrey believes safe passage in construction zones is possible.

"In general, and I've been doing this for about 18 years now, while we may see more delays during construction it appears to me, for the most part, the majority of people drive better in construction zones," he said. "There's an increased awareness that conditions aren't as good as an area where you don't have construction. I think people naturally tend to slow down and be better focused on their driving, but as we all know, it only takes one (driver) to make that up for everybody."

edaniels@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1860

Twitter: @EDanielsTBO

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