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'It's gut-wrenching:' 373 fatal crashes in Region claim 404 lives over five years

From the The Region's Deadliest Roads series
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It's a gut-wrenching network of congested, deadly corridors most of us travel each day in Northwest Indiana.

A Times computer-assisted probe reveals 373 fatal road crashes over five years killed 404 people in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

The roads tallying the highest body counts are nearly impossible for most of us to avoid, comprising the main and most congested traffic arteries in the Region.

Meanwhile, some potential fixes to alleviate the problem, including a long-proposed new stretch of interstate, remain politically elusive.

Former LaPorte County Police Capt. Michael Kellems said he still gets chills when he thinks back on two triple-fatal car accidents that occurred exactly two months apart last year along the same stretch of U.S. 20 north of LaPorte.

In both cases, passenger vehicles crossed the centerline of the highway and collided with oncoming vehicles.

"It's gut wrenching," said Kellems, a 32-year police veteran, who now works as manager of safety at the Duneland School Corp.

The two fatal crashes were among 27 last year in LaPorte County, which was a five-year high, according to Dona Sapp, senior policy analyst with the Indiana University Public Policy Institute.

Porter County also hit a five-year high last year with 28 traffic fatalities, while Lake County was down to 51 from 59 in 2015, she said, quoting figures pending final approval for publication in the forthcoming Traffic Safety Facts: County Profiles, 2017 report compiled by the IU Public Policy Institute.

"That's big numbers for an individual county," she said of the double-digit increases in Porter and LaPorte counties.

The statewide number of traffic deaths as of early this month is down by nearly 100 as compared to the same period last year, said Will Wingfield, communications director for the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, which produces its Annual Highway Safety Plan.

A Times computer-assisted probe of roadway fatality data kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that there were 211 fatal vehicle crashes with 226 people killed between 2010 and 2014 in Lake County, 84 crashes and 95 killed in LaPorte County, and 78 crashes with 83 killed in Porter County.

Perilous corridors

A large number of the fatal crashes throughout the Region last year occurred along the busier, faster moving highways, according to comparative maps to be included in IU's 2017 Traffic Safety Facts publication.

Leading the way is the perilous interstate corridor shared by I-80/94 and I-90, including the Indiana Toll Road.

The Times probe of 373 Region roadway accidents over five years revealed 50 fatal crashed claimed 56 lives along that corridor, making it the Region's deadliest roadway.

The Region accounts for 41 percent of Indiana's I-80 corridor — but a 78 percent of the people killed and 89 percent of the fatal crashes along that route in Indiana between 2010 and 2014.

Compared to the I-80 corridor from coast to coast, the Region's portion accounts for 2.1 percent of the nation’s I-80 corridor but 6 percent of the people killed and 6 percent of the fatal crashes on the entire corridor.

Other top deadly stretches revealed in The Times probe, in descending order, are U.S. 20, U.S. 30, U.S. 41, Ind. 2 and Interstate 65.

While the Region sees its share of crashes during the snowy months, most of the fatalities between 2010 and 2014 occurred, in descending order, during October, August, July, June and September, according to the NHTSA.

Human error is a key factor for most fatal crashes, Sapp said.

But congested highways are the common pot in which the tragedy is cooked.

The Region stretch of Interstate 80/94 near the Illinois state line sees as many as 151,000 passenger cars and 50,000 commercial vehicles passing through daily, according to Adam Parkhouse, media relations director for the Indiana Department of Transportation's northwest district.

Highs of nearly 80,000 passenger cars and 19,000 commercial vehicles pass daily along Interstate 65 near the interchange with U.S. 30, he said.

The strip of U.S. 30 near the Southlake Mall sees as many as 62,000 passenger cars and 3,600 commercial vehicles daily, Parkhouse said.

U.S. 41 experiences as many as 41,000 passenger cars and 1,700 commercial vehicles each day near the intersection with U.S. 30, he said.

U.S. 20 can carry as many as 23,000 passenger cars and 3,500 commercial vehicles each day through Michigan City and more than 16,000 passenger cars in the eastern part of LaPorte County.

Deadly U.S. highways

Though the Region's main interstate corridor is our Region's deadliest stretch of roadway, U.S. highways, which overlap with municipal and county roads, account for the largest cumulative number of fatal crashes and deaths.

A special set of characteristics, blending pedestrians with high-volume vehicle traffic and undivided highways, make it so, authorities said.

Lake, Porter and LaPorte county U.S. highways — including U.S. 20, U.S. 30 and U.S. 41 — accounted for 99 fatal crashes in which 106 people died over five years.

U.S. 20, the Region's second-deadliest roadway, actually poses a bigger problem for the city of Portage because the commercial stretch brings vehicle and pedestrian traffic together, he said.

"It's pretty frequent that people are walking along that road," he said.

A total of 31 fatal crashes claimed 33 lives on that stretch of Northwest Indiana highway, The Times probe shows.

U.S. 20 also poses a problem because, unlike the expressways, there is no center divider, which creates plenty of opportunity for head-on collisions, Sosby said. This was the case in October 2017 when an elderly woman driving at a high rate of speed crossed the center line and struck another vehicle head on, killing herself and a 17-year-old Chesterton High School honor roll student driving the other vehicle.

What's missing along the city's stretch of U.S. 20 is clearly marked center striping and rumble strips cut into the roadway to warn motorists when they start drifting into oncoming lanes.

The Indiana Department of Transportation has undertaken or is planning a number of safety improvement projects along U.S. 20 and the other corridors with high fatality numbers, Parkhouse said. The U.S. 20 work includes repaving and the addition of turn lanes and shoulder rumble strips in LaPorte County, he said.

Improvements also are planned for U.S. 41, the Region's 4th deadliest roadway, including the addition of a center turn lane from 77th Avenue to U.S. 231, Parkhouse said. The project could be underway in 2020. Fifteen fatal crashes claimed 15 lives over five years on that highway.

INDOT already performed some intersection improvements last year along U.S. 30 in Merrillville aimed at increasing safety, he said. These included the addition of a turn lane at Rhode Island Avenue and work at Mississippi Street.

U.S. 30 is our three-county area's third-deadliest roadway corridor, accounting for 20 fatal crashes and 20 people killed over five years.

Relief valve

The number of crashes corresponds with the higher number of vehicles, and Lake Michigan forces a plethora of traffic through the narrow corridor of Northwest Indiana into and out of Chicago, Indiana Criminal Justice Institute spokesman Wingfield said.

"We see that hotspot, but it's not immediately evident the cause behind it."

A proposed relief valve for Region highway congestion — a long-discussed a new four-lane interstate connecting Interstate 65 in Indiana with Interstate 55 in Illinois — has been stalled by political forces.

An alternative to this Illiana Expressway also was pitched last year and called for the construction of a toll-based expressway connecting the Indiana Toll Road to four interstates, culminating with I-80 near Morris, Illinois.

Indiana State Police Lt. Terry Gose, who is very familiar with the traffic patterns along the local stretch of Interstate 94 as district commander at the Indiana State Police Lowell post, agrees that problems increase when there are more people on the roads.

It takes just one event on the highway to slow traffic and create conditions optimal for accidents, he said.

When traffic is creeping along slowly during heavy traveled times, such as Fridays and Sundays, crashes tend be more minor, Gose said. But the more serious and deadly crashes occur when a fast moving vehicle collides with slowed or stopped traffic.

"Those tend to be some of the most horrific crashes we have," he said.

When backups begin to occur, Gose said his fellow officers try to position themselves 100 yards behind the slow-down with emergency lights on to warn oncoming vehicles to decrease their speed.

"It's not a perfect solution, but it's one of the things we do to help lessen that," he said.

The officers also try to be visible on the highway to gain voluntary compliance with traffic laws, Gose said.

"We want to make people see us," he said. "We want to make people safe."

First responder challenges

When crashes do occur, state and local police departments are joined on the busy highways by local firefighters.

The city of Hammond is among the local communities with both Interstate 80/94 and the Toll Road within its jurisdiction.

"It's a headache for us," said Deputy Hammond Fire Chief Kevin Margraf.

Part of the problem is that many of the motorists on either highway are just passing through and are often unable to give reliable locations when reporting accidents, he said.

"There's a lot of wasted miles out there at times," he said of his department's attempts to locate a crash scene.

The Interstate 90 Toll Road poses a unique challenge because it is narrow, and there can be inadequate shoulder room for trucks to reach crashes when traffic is backed up, he said.

The Portage Fire Department faces the same challenges, in addition to receiving a wide variety of calls to the highways, said Assistant Fire Chief Tim Sosby.

While the department has not had to go to the extra expense of purchasing special equipment for the highway calls, it does routinely take an extra engine out to serve as protection by blocking traffic approaching a crash scene, he said.

The department does not have a tanker truck because most of the city is protected by fire hydrants, which means it has to rely on other departments to bring out water when needed on the highway, Sosby said.

Work continues to improve safety and mobility along Interstate 80/94 and an added travel lane along the Lake County stretch of Interstate 65, said Parkhouse.

"INDOT personnel are always keeping an eye on potential areas of concern and addressing safety issues both preemptively and as they arise," he said.

Region's Top 10 Deadliest Roads

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Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.

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