Institute revises I-65 crash figures

A state agency has retracted accident figures it provided to The Republic for a story about accidents and fatalities the I-65 construction zone on Interstate 65, admitting state workers incorrectly calculated the statistics.

The Republic used traffic figures provided by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, a state agency that tracks traffic statistics as part of its mission to develop and implement statewide traffic-safety initiatives, in a story Sept. 22 about the increasing number of accidents in the I-65 construction zone near Columbus.

The construction zone is located south of Columbus to Seymour, where Indiana Department of Transportation contractor E&B Paving of Anderson is widening the interstate from two lanes to three from Walesboro to Seymour.

Citing a mix-up in the agency’s research department, Robert Duckworth, institute director of the traffic safety division, said the data provided to The Republic “was not filtered for the specific mile markers” of the construction zone, even though the data was presented to the newspaper as occurring within those mile markers in an email and phone interview with institute officials.

Duckworth apologized to the newspaper for the error in the statistics.

When the institute provided revised figures on Tuesday, the figures did not include at least two fatal accidents in the construction zone this year that resulted in four deaths, which did not match police records of the incidents. Duckworth did not reply to phone calls or an email seeking clarification.

At the Republic’s request, Indiana State Police spokesman Sgt. Stephen Wheeles ran data from the state police which showed an increase in traffic accidents, injured motorists and fatalities in the construction zone, including several that were missing from the institute report.

There were 336 crashes, 96 injured motorists and five fatalities on I-65 between mile marker 50 and mile marker 64 from March 2018 to Sept. 15, 2019, according to Wheeles.

From March 2016 to Sept. 15, 2017, there were 206 crashes, 62 injured motorists and four fatalities, which is the time period before the construction work started.

Wheeles reiterated that state police have stepped up patrols in the area and have issued 3,334 traffic tickets and 3,437 warnings in the construction zone from March 2018 to Sept. 15 of this year. There were also 1,157 requests for police services in the construction zone, such as motorist assists, Wheeles said.

INDOT, for its part, tracks work zone crashes “very closely and reports those metrics to both the governor’s office and the Indiana General Assembly,” said Natalie Garrett, INDOT spokeswoman.

“We rely on the same reporting database as Indiana State Police and the Criminal Justice Institute,” she said. “Our work zone safety group at the Traffic Management Center in Indianapolis specifically tracks crashes and incidents within our work zones, analyzes them, studies trends and recommends best practices for work zone traffic configurations to prevent future crashes.”

Garrett said INDOT has met with E&B Paving Inc. officials during weekly progress report meetings. Traffic accidents and safety are among the topics covered in the meetings, she said.

“INDOT, E&B Paving Inc. and the Indiana State Police have worked together since this project began last spring to increase and maintain safety for both drivers and construction crews,” Garrett said. “A number of measures have been implemented, including increased patrols by law enforcement, increased signage, repainting pavement markings as needed to make them more visible (especially at lane shifts), a 55-mph speed restriction, having trucks travel in the left lane through the work zone and limiting lane restrictions to nighttime hours.”

The average daily traffic along that stretch of I-65 is approximately 30,700 vehicles, with about 15,400 traveling northbound and 15,300 traveling southbound, Garrett said.

The three-year, $143 million project will make I-65 three lanes in each direction between U.S. Highway 50 and State Road 58 and resurface the roadway between State Road 58 to the exit at State Road 46 in Columbus, according to a statement by INDOT.

The project is scheduled to be completed in 2020, said Scott Manning, INDOT spokesman.

In an earlier interview, Wheeles said the increased number of accidents, including an increasing number of semi rollovers, are occurring because there is no room for error in the construction zone, which lacks road shoulder areas where vehicles might be able to regain control if veering off the lanes.

The traffic lanes in the construction zone have not been reduced in size, but “it gives you the feeling that it is closer or more narrow because you don’t have the extra room for error that you would have if there was a wide shoulder,” Wheeles said.

One issue Wheeles said he was aware of was semi-trucks traveling in the right lane instead of the left in the construction zone getting their tires off the road, especially because of the reduced shoulder.

“If they get their right-side tires off the road at all, it will suck their vehicle completely off the road, and we’ve seen that with some of the accidents,” Wheeles said.