Eight people have died in traffic accidents along a five-mile stretch of Interstate 80 approaching the Mississippi River bridge since lane closures began almost two years ago, Iowa Department of Transportation officials reported last week.
All four lanes of the bridge are expected to reopen this morning pending the completion of a state inspection. At least two lanes have been closed for months at a time since the Illinois Department of Transportation began its bridge repair project in May 2009. Work was completed just before Thanksgiving, and the inspection was delayed until after the busy holiday travel weekend, said John Wegmeyer, project implementation engineer for the Illinois DOT.
“It’s the first time since spring 2009 that we’ve had four lanes across the bridge,” he said.
While agency officials say traffic accidents almost always are the result of driver error, some say lane closures create conditions that might increase the risk of rear-end collisions and other severe accidents.
“We probably saw more because of construction and lane reduction,” said Doug Rick, local district engineer for Iowa DOT. “It’s what happens when you restrict two lanes down to one. You open up more opportunities for things to happen.”
The portion of the interstate just before the lanes merged is where engineers saw the greatest number of accidents.
“Once you’re in one lane, there’s relatively few accidents,” Wegmeyer said. “The accidents that pose the greatest danger are in that transition zone,” he said. “Someone is not paying attention, not slowing down, and they run into the back of another vehicle. The most serious and fatal accidents are in advance of a construction area.”
On Nov. 23, a car driven by 75-year-old Barbara Anselmi of Overland Park, Kan., slammed into the back of a semitrailer that had slowed because of traffic congestion building up just before the lanes merged, the Iowa State Patrol reported. She was treated for injuries and released from Genesis Medical Center, East Rusholme Street, Davenport.
Her accident occurred at mile marker 303, which is three miles from the bridge and also where three pedestrians were killed by semitrailers this year.
Lane restrictions cause more rear-end accidents, said Scott Falb, driver safety specialist with the Iowa DOT. And those accidents, he added, usually occur at the back of the line of vehicles queued up in advance of a bottleneck — even several miles from the restriction.
“When you’re in the middle of a line of traffic going through a construction zone, you’re in a fairly safe position. Everyone’s going at the same speed,” Falb said. “When you’re at the back of the line, then there’s the potential you’re going at a much lower speed than the vehicle approaching you from the rear.”
Falb advises drivers approaching a line of cars to slow down well in advance and leave room in front, especially if the driver sees someone coming up from behind.
“Tap on the brake,” he said. “Pay attention to what you’re doing.”
He added, “Signal the driver behind you that circumstances are changing and that they should brake immediately and become aware.”
Iowa DOT statistics since 2005 show the number of traffic accidents fluctuate year to year. While traffic fatalities increased during the construction period of 2009-10, there actually were fewer accidents overall when compared to the years prior.
Engineers said that could be because some traffic was diverted to Interstates 280 and 74. The stretch of I-80 typically sees a daily volume of about 27,300 vehicles. That’s 10,000 more than I-280, which, like I-80, also circles the Quad-Cities.
The approach to the bridge on the Illinois side hasn’t seen nearly as many accidents as the Iowa approach. On the Illinois side, Wegmeyer explained, the construction zone extends past the bridge all the way to the Interstate 88 interchange.
In Illinois, the lanes merged to one well before the bridge, he said, and signs and orange cones were in place beginning near the I-88 interchange.