A deadly stretch of Interstate 64

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By Lisa King

At first glance, there's nothing sinister about the stretch of the Interstate 64 at around mile marker 38, east of Shelbyville. It appears simply to be a two-lane stretch of a busy highway that bisects Shelby County.

But something is amiss out there, Shelby County Sheriff Mike Armstrong insists, and he wants to find out what about this area has caused it to become perhaps the county's most dangerous stretch of highway.

"The one particular spot we're talking about is kind of in the low area before you get to where the old weigh station used to be," he said. "When people call in, they'll say it's the 38th mile marker, but it might be actually closer to the 39. But in that area, seems to be where we've had a lot of trouble."

In the last week of July, Robert Hite III of Shelbyville and Seth Coy of Tennessee, were killed there in separate accidents.

In the first seven months of 2009, the Kentucky State Police have recorded 72 accidents between mile markers 38 and 47 (the Franklin County line), 36 with injuries, including the two deaths. Those figures represent 49.3 percent of accidents, 60 percent of injuries 50 percent of deaths for the 24 miles of I-64 in Shelby County, though it’s only 38 percent of the road.

Armstrong said he first realized that there was something strange about that section of roadway when Coy, a basketball player at East Tennessee State University, was killed here on July 29.

Coy was traveling westbound when he lost control of his car on wet pavement and struck the embankment in the median, flipping the car and killing him instantly.

Shelby County Sheriff's detective Jason Rice said Coy’s accident was attributed to water in the road, because it had been raining very hard when the accident happened. "We have had numerous accidents in that same spot," Rice said.

But Armstrong said he got curious and started examining dispatch records. He found that his office had worked 42 calls in that area from Nov. 1, 2008 to July 29, 2009. Of that number, 24 calls have been accidents.

"Let me explain," he said. "Sometimes we may get a call of a vehicle off the road and when we get there it's gone or we didn't have to do anything. We have actually taken a report in that area 24 times, for a traffic accident or something related."

Rice agrees that 24 accidents are too many for any particular area.

"I don't know what's going on out there, but I know it's something, because you don't usually have more than three or four accidents in a certain area," he said. "And at that fatality the other day, I noticed there was a tremendous amount of skid marks and tire debris out there, and I think that all that physical evidence speaks for itself."

Said EMS Director Steve Wortham: "We respond to calls in that area all the time. I don't know what it is, but something out there is causing crashes."


Area investigated

Rice said he does not have a theory about why this is happening. "It looks straight and level like a good road should," he said. "But I still don't think it's a coincidence."

Sgt. William Mahuron with the Shelby County Fire Department said he has had heard people say that maybe the embankment in the median was causing problems in that area, but he didn't think that was it.

"They've got to run off the road for other reasons before they hit the median," he said.

"I just know it's usually between the 38th and 39th mile markers, is where we usually go, in that range. I don't know if it's just people driving too fast or what. The median is actually a big hill, and it's [the roadway] got big shoulders on both sides."

Rice said it's strange that all these accidents started happening right after the state completed repaving the roadway around Exit 43 and widening a portion to three lanes.

"The state finished its widening and resurfacing project out there last October, and it has been happening ever since," he said.

In all of 2008, there were 75 accidents between mile markers 38 and 47, including 23 with injuries, almost the same totals as through July 31.

Kentucky State Police Ron Turley said the only reason he can think of that could account for the phenomenon does have something to do with the construction.

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the construction itself, but maybe people are just having a difficult time adjusting to driving on a different type of roadway,” he said. “Road improvements were completed in that area last fall, and maybe people are just having trouble getting used to it. You take the newness of the road, and plus with now having three lanes, maybe people think they can go faster, which could be a factor.”

Armstrong said he has no theories, except that he initially thought it could be rain related.

"It happens more when it's wet, so I'm assuming it could be something related to water, maybe a drainage problem, I don't know, I'm not in that line of work, but we do think it's something that needs to be looked into, that's why I notified the state," he said.


State's findings

Andrea Clifford, public information officer for the Transportation Cabinet's District 5, said that several state highway employees checked out the area after Armstrong made his request.

"They have asked us to look at this area, because of all the crashes," she said.

She said the examination was completed under both wet and dry conditions.

"They [road department employees] did not see any type of issue that could contribute to a crash, such as where the shoulder could be higher and not allow the water to drain off, or such as that," she said. "So they went back again, three different times, and then another guy from Frankfort came and looked at it. There was not any pooling of water or anything that would contribute to hydroplaning."

Tim Wafford, supervisor for the state garage in Shelby County, said he also examined the roadway on several different occasions.

"I checked it out when it was raining and when it was dry," he said. "I stood up on the bank, and watched the traffic. Nobody had problems that I could see. I saw nothing wrong with it at all. I can't understand it. It's just very strange."


Caution advised

Armstrong said that because he does not know what force is at work in contributing to the high number of crashes, he just wants to caution drivers to be extra careful in that area.

"If anybody's traveling that stretch of highway, especially on the westbound side, they just need to be real leery," he said. "Of course, people should always be careful whenever they're driving, but I do advise everybody to be a little more cautious in that spot."

Shelbyville Police Chief Robert Schutte said that even though that location is outside the territory where his units patrol, he also wants to add a word of caution to motorists.

"It's not our area; we usually patrol from the 32- to the 36-mile marker, but I do know personally how dangerous the interstate is, because my wife was involved in a serious crash out there a few years ago," he said.Staff Photos by Lisa King

This spot on Interstate 64 in Shelby County has had more accidents than any other spot in the county, say law enforcement officials.