MARION, IL (KFVS) - A nearly 30 percent increase in crashes on Interstate 57 over the summer prompted Illinois State Police and local lawmakers to sound the alarm and investigate why so many more drivers were being injured, or even killed.
A group of troopers, Illinois Department of Transportation officials, and lawmakers studied the problem, and found several factors contributed to crashes. Ultimately, they learned the answer could have more to do with changing the way you think about this interstate.
"When you approach an urban area, you ramp up your alertness, and we want drivers to do the same in this corridor," said IDOT District 9 Program Development Engineer Carrie Nelson.
Nelson is referring to a 53-mile stretch of Interstate 57 south of Marion at the Interstate 24 split north to the Interstate 64 interchange in Mt. Vernon.
Believe it or not, IDOT traffic counts show that stretch of I-57 in the heartland is as busy as I-80 near Chicago.
"Traffic ranges from 35,000 to 45,000 vehicles per day, and 35 percent are trucks," said Nelson. "So, any corridor that has over 10,000 trucks a day is a very busy corridor."
"You add in construction, poor choices drivers are making, add in all of those things that we do in our cars - it creates a perfect storm," said Illinois State Police Trooper Joey Watson.
Trooper Watson says last summer with gas prices low and travel season in full swing, the I-57 corridor between Marion and Mt. Vernon became crash central.
"Fatalities went from zero to two, and the total number of crashes went from 78 to 108," Watson said. "So that was a 28 percent increase."
The increase caught the attention of lawmakers. Republican Representatives Terri Bryant of Murphysboro and Rep. Dave Severin of Benton wanted to know why crash, after crash, after crash kept happening.
"Seemed like it perpetuated itself," said Rep. Severin. "When it started happening this summer, one thing led to another, and it just kept getting worse."
Illinois State Police put more troopers on the interstate, and IDOT conducted a roadside safety audit to study the types of crashes to learn more about their cause.
"Three of the most common accident types we're experiencing on our corridor is rear ends, run off the road, and sideswipe same direction," Nelson said.
"We found out that the accidents – most of them were happening during the day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in good weather," said Rep. Severin.
Clearly, we have some distracted driving," said Rep. Bryant. "In fact, in one of the more recent crashes, the semi-truck driver was viewing a movie being streamed into the truck."
Several other factors compounded the danger, making distracted driving even more likely to result in a crash on the I-57 corridor; among them - construction zones.
"You shouldn't be experiencing rear ends on an interstate facility. So, we know that our work zones and incident management when we do have to close the lane – that can be very dangerous," said Nelson.
Rep. Bryant believes changing traffic patterns also play a role.
"You've got three lanes in Marion, you've got three lanes in Mt. Vernon, in-between you've got two lanes," Rep. Bryant said. "You have drivers going at a high rate of speed. Then they go to three lanes and they're able to keep doing that, and then they go to two lanes and maybe one lane then back up to two so it's confusing for drivers."
IDOT engineers say the audit did not show any substantial number of crashes where I-57 narrows from three lanes to two, or widens from two lanes to three. In fact, the audit revealed crashes occurred evenly throughout the corridor over the summer with no single cause to blame.
"There's no real smoking gun on the crashes that are happening out there," said Nelson. "There's a variety of things going on out there. There could be inclement weather. You could have distracted driving, impaired drivers, sometimes people just aren't paying attention. It's not always the roads. There's only so much you can do with design - you will still have crashes."
Nelson does believe expanding the entire corridor between Marion and Mt. Vernon to three lanes in each direction could reduce the number of crashes by giving drivers more space to correct, and avoid collisions.
"What we'd like to do is expand Interstate 57 to six lanes," said Nelson. "With the truck traffic and all the additional traffic, we need an additional lane. When we do that we'll also be able to add a concrete center median barrier to prevent crossover crashes. Those can be very severe when they happen."
IDOT has plans drawn up to expand the interstate from Johnston City to West Frankfort, but Illinois lacks the funding to break ground.
The state has applied for a $13 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to begin work on the next phase of expansion.
Nelson said the federal Department of Transportation is expected to announce the projects selected to receive TIGER funds in March.
In the meantime, troopers say safety starts with drivers.
"People have to make good decisions," said Trooper Watson. "At the end of the day I can't put an officer in every car to ride shotgun with them. They have to make that choice."
Troopers say drivers should avoid the Fatal Four: speeding; driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, not wearing seat belts, and driving distracted.