More traffic patrols. Automated speed enforcement. Railroad investment.
State and local officials have floated each of these solutions in the two weeks since a crash killed seven people on Interstate 75 in Alachua County, the deadliest such incident on the stretch in seven years.
It’s become such a dangerous stretch of road that even Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Art Forgey advises his friends and loved ones to avoid it.
“It’s a combination of things: The volume of traffic that’s out there and people not paying attention,” Forgey said, “And when you take into account the speeds that they’re traveling and the inattention, it usually makes for a very spectacular accident.”
He said the sheriff’s office would want to bring back a traffic unit to help patrol this stretch of I-75. The unit was disbanded in 2012 after the Sandy Hook school shooting, with deputies instead being assigned as school resource officers. He also understands the challenges of acquiring funding for the unit.
“There’s only so many dollars to go around,” Forgey said.
If the office seeks additional funding for these extra positions within the unit, Forgey said the amount will be determined in next year’s budget — to be submitted to the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners on May 1.
Commissioner Robert Hutchinson agreed with enhancing speed enforcement but prefers cameras and automated systems do the work, instead of more patrol officers.
“If a car is already doing 80 or 85 miles per hour, it’s tough for police to catch,” Hutchinson said. “And (the police are) going to be going 90 or 95. That simply adds to the problem. So we need technological solutions.”
Hutchinson also wants more investment into building a railroad system to reduce the volume of truck traffic.
The I-75 Relief Task Force in late 2016 suggested ideas like segregating truck lanes and also recommended a system where railroad and logistics centers would ease the freight burden. Tractor trailers were at the center of this month’s deadly crash, just as they were in 2012 on I-75 in Paynes Prairie.
On an A to F grading scale for an acceptable flow of traffic, the Florida Department of Transportation gives I-75 through Marion and Alachua counties nearly a “C” grade at heaviest traffic times. The forecast indicates the rating will decline to a failing “F” grade by 2030.
“As cars get smaller and lighter, the trucks are getting heavier and bigger. That’s a huge problem,” Hutchinson said.
Truck driving instructor Rickey Monroe said this discrepancy in sizes and insufficiency in infrastructure are the reasons why safety around semis are everyone’s responsibility.
It’s almost a year since Monroe started teaching at Marion County Technical College. His students participate in an eight-week training that includes 320 hours of instruction behind a simulator before they get behind the wheel.
“One good thing to look at when you’re around a truck is that if you can’t see the mirrors, the driver can’t see you. You need to give it enough space in front, sides, and rears,” said Monroe, who became a truck driver in 1999.
Monroe said he teaches people to complete a hauling job with safety as the number one priority. He noted a fully-loaded semi of about 80,000 pounds and driving 65 miles per hour on a dry road will take almost two football fields to stop.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the two semis traveling north smashed into each other and then burst through a metal guardrail. Court records show one of the truck drivers, Steve Holland of West Palm Beach, was ticketed, including for speeding, between 2000 and 2014 in Florida, as well as several other states.
“They always blame the truck drivers,” Monroe said, “Increasing enforcement is a great thing to do, to watch for aggressive and careless drivers.”
The National Transportation Safety Board would normally send a team to help with the investigation, but cannot because of the federal government shutdown.