Accidents up along I-540 construction work

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 90 views 

Since Interstate 540 through Van Buren and the north side of Fort Smith was reduced to one lane in both directions, many drivers will tell you traffic has often slowed to a crawl.

In addition to slowing traffic, figures from the Arkansas State Police and an increase in estimates at a local auto body shop suggest an increase in accidents, as well.

According to Lt. Bryan Davis, assistant troop commander at ASP Troop H in Fort Smith, there have been 76 accidents between I-40 and the Rogers Avenue exit since construction began Jan. 28. Of those, 15 accidents involved personal injury and one accident resulted in a fatality. (Link here for detail on the more than $78 million interstate renovation project.)

Davis said while the state police did not track the number of accidents prior to the start of construction, the number appears to be abnormal.

"It would be safe to say we've had an increase," he said, adding that the department works 1.35 accidents per day. Even though the number is an increase, Davis said the peak of accidents was 1.8 per day.

The increase is being felt at Medley & Sons Autobody in Fort Smith.

Co-owner Helen Medley said while she was unsure how many of her clients were involved in incidents related to I-540, she had definitely seen an uptick in the number of estimates requested at her shop.

"I think we've had about 50% more (estimates)," she said.

Medley said the largest increase at her business had occurred recently.

"Really, it's been the last couple of weeks," she said.

The time period coincides with the lane shifts that have occurred on the interstate.

District engineer Joe Shipman of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department said the recent lane shift was intended to allow construction crews to work with less chance of interaction with drivers.

"Our goal is to make it safest for motorists," he said. "We look at various things from the standpoint of our crews, we work with the contractor to make it safer for their crews and our crews. The biggest thing is trying to keep our work separated from the motorists. If we can do that, that's a benefit for everyone."

Due to safety measures, such as shifting north and southbound traffic to the same side of the interstate, Shipman said none of the reported 76 accidents have involved construction crews.

While there may have been an increase in the number of accidents and auto body estimates since the start of construction, it has not necessarily translated into an increased number of insurance claims.

Don Gill, an Allstate Insurance agent in Fort Smith, said his company had only had one claim directly related to I-540 construction.

"It was someone who was rear-ended and that could happen anywhere," he said.

Ken Nichols, an agent with Farmers Insurance in Fort Smith, said his agency had not seen a single claim from the construction.

"Now that you bring it up, no, not really," he said, adding that his agency's greatest number of claims comes from stray rocks or debris hitting windshields. But he said even those numbers had not gone up greatly.

"My biggest thing is glass claims, but it's nothing more than usual. And nothing has been reported from 540," Nichols said.

Shipman said in order for Nichols and Gill to continue to see a low number of claims and for Medley to provide fewer I-540-related estimates, drivers need to focus on two key areas while driving — maintaining a steady speed and keeping a safe distance from other drivers.

By keeping a distance from other drivers, Shipman said drivers will be able to reduce the amount of stop-and-go traffic, especially during morning and evening rush hours.

"Right now we have people stopping on the interstate to let people in," he said. "By keeping a good distance, cars will be able to merge without stopping."

Drivers using alternate routes has reduced the number of accidents, something Shipman hopes will continue.

"One thing that is helping is that motorists are looking to other routes," he said. "We see that the traffic counts on 540 are down as much as 15,000 (cars per day) on 540. In the last couple of weeks, we've actually seen a continued drop."

Davis said taking an alternate route at the busiest travel times will continue to be beneficial and safe for drivers and construction crews. Alternate routes from Van Buren into Fort Smith include the Midland Avenue bridge, the Garrison Avenue bridge and Highway 59 through Barling.

"In and out of Fort Smith gets pretty congested," he said. "Alternate routes are encouraged if they can find a better way."