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It was fixed 12 years ago... so why are trucks wrecking so often?
BY TOM MITSOFF
COVINGTON - The crash was like hundreds of others in the stretch of Interstate 75/71 in Covington that's called the Cut-in-the-Hill.
Just before 9 p.m. Monday night, three semis barreling down the steep incline that begins north of Kyles Lane somehow got too close to each other and then all hell broke loose, with chunks of truck and cargo flying.
One of the trucks wound up sprawled across all four lanes of traffic, another went halfway over the hill.
No one was injured, but the northbound lanes at the Fifth Street exit were closed for two hours while crews cleaned up the spilled freight and removed the mangled trucks.
Such truck wrecks are becoming more common.
An analysis of data on accidents involving commercial vehicles - trucks - on I-71/75 between the Fifth Street exit in Covington and the Kyles Lane interchange in Fort Wright shows that they have been on the increase in the past 2½ years, reversing a trend that had such accidents on the decline between 2000 and 2003, according to data provided by the Kentucky State Police.
In this decade, truck accidents on the Cut-in-the-Hill bottomed out in 2003, when there were just 45. But since then, the numbers have been on the rise, with 72 in 2004, 74 in 2005, and 64 in 2006 through Tuesday. Projected over the remainder of the year at the current rate would mean more than 80 accidents involving trucks will occur in 2006.
"There's obviously something going on there," said Daniel Kreinest, Fort Wright chief of police. "I've noticed it just like anyone else that drives through there."
Covington police work the great majority of accidents on the Cut-in-the-Hill.
"There has been a definite increase," said Covington Assistant Chief Lt. Col. Mike Kraft. "But I don't know that there is any common cause."
Robert Koehler, deputy executive director of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, said the cause for the additional truck crashes probably is directly related to the overall increase in traffic on that two-plus mile swath of highway.
Traffic counts done this year show that about 150,000 vehicles travel the hill each day, up more than 10 percent over the 136,000 vehicles using it daily in 1996.
Koehler said trucks represent about 8 percent of interstate highway traffic, so as the number of overall vehicles driving the Cut-in-the-Hill increases, so, concurrently, does the number of trucks. And more trucks means more chances for accidents involving trucks, he said.
George Russell, a Kenton County deputy sheriff who worked hundreds of accidents on the Cut-in-the-Hill during 27½ years with Covington police, estimated that 90 percent of those smash-ups involved trucks. Trucks weren't always ensnared in those crashes, but often played roles in causing them as cars swerved to avoid the larger vehicles, he said.
The Post's analysis of 2006 truck accidents on the hill showed they most frequently involved one semi and one passenger vehicle, with one sideswiping the other while both are headed the same direction. Most frequently, the drivers of both vehicles were men, neither being Kenton County residents. Most of the accidents resulted in damage to property only - there were no injuries.
There has not been a fatal accident involving a commercial vehicle so far this year in the Cut-in-the-Hill.
Koehler said differences in travel speeds between larger and smaller vehicles account for this type of accident.
"Sometimes you have trucks struggling to get up the hill, and while they're supposed to stay in the right lane, sometimes you get trucks in all four lanes," he said.
Although the southbound lanes coming off the Brent Spence bridge are marked with signs instructing truckers to use the right two lanes, they "often kick it up to 60 or 70 (mph) or more to get up the hill without bogging down," Russell said.
With a fully loaded truck, it's nearly impossible to crest the hill without slowing to a crawl, he said, creating backups behind them and increasing the chance for accidents.
On the other side of the highway, truckers round the curve just north of Kyles Lane often going too fast, then hit the brakes. When traffic is heavy, that leaves little room for error.
In 2006, truck crashes happened about as often in the northbound lanes as in those heading south.
The truck problems on the hill exacerbate the traffic congestion on and around the Brent Spence Bridge. That 43-year-old span was designed to carry up to 80,000 vehicles per day, but is now traveled by 155,000 daily. Local officials are working to raise the more than $2 billion for a replacement, but construction of that project could be more than a decade off, when the load could be as many as 200,000 vehicles a day.
The problems on the Cut-in-the-Hill are not limited to trucks. The hill has more than seven times more accidents than the statewide average for similar roadways, according to the report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Ohio Department of Transportation.
The overall crash rate is 130.36 accidents per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, about a third more than Kentucky's statewide average crash rate for interstate highways of 93 accidents per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the report.
The road up the hill was rebuilt in a four-year project completed in 1994, at a cost of more than $50 million. That work straightened a treacherous S-curve, added a fourth lane for southbound traffic, rebuilt the ramp at Kyles Lane and created a new interchange at Pike and 12th streets.
"I do know that it's safer now than it was before," said Ned Sheehy, president of the Kentucky Motor Transport Association, a trucking group. "The number of accidents there was one of the main reasons that (project) was done."
Through trucks were banned on the Cut-in-the-Hill in 1986 in anticipation of the rebuilding of the road, but the ban was lifted in 1995. There has been little talk of resorting to a ban again, even with the increase in truck accidents on the hill.
"There has been no discussion of truck diversion," said Nancy Wood, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's District 6 office in Fort Mitchell.
The ban in the late 1980s and the early 1990s provoked howls of protest from other communities along Interstate 275, the detour route, with their leaders complaining the additional traffic was causing more accidents and other problems for them.
Mark Policinski, executive director of OKI, said those same issues would likely impede any attempt to resurrect the truck ban.
"The question is, what impact does (a ban) have on the rest of the network grid?" he said. "Do you create other safety problems? And if you divert trucks, what effect does that have on commerce?"
Short of a truck ban, the Cut-in-the-Hill would be safer if motorists - truckers and car drivers alike - would slow down, obey traffic laws and acknowledge that the hill is a spot where extra caution is needed, say experts.
"It would help if truckers would obey the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit from I-275 to the river," said Wood. She suggested trucking companies and industry groups whose drivers travel the Cut-in-the-Hill caution them about their speed and the potential for disaster there.
Officers who have policed Cut-in-the-Hill traffic say a variety of correctable factors - from improperly loaded trucks to tailgating to reckless lane changing - could make that highway safer.
Russell, who said a truck ban would make the hill a lot safer "but move our problem to the county," said stiffer enforcement of traffic laws could reduce accidents there. But he acknowledged: "You could put officers out there 24 hours a day and still not slow them (motorists) down."
It doesn't appear that truckers on the Cut-in-the-Hill will be slowing down anytime soon, said Frank Taylor, a Canadian driver whose job hauling auto parts between Ontario and Frankfort sends him through that stretch regularly.
"It's the way the system's designed, with just-in-time delivery," he said. "Everybody's in too much of a hurry. People don't realize it's as bad as it is."
This article appeared in The Cincinnati Post and The Kentucky Post on October 22, 2006.
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