Many of those familiar with the stretch of Interstate 95 where a tanker truck triggered a massive fatal crash Friday morning said it is one of the most treacherous stretches of road in the region.
That portion of the roadway is simply “terrible,” said Ed Jutila, the Democratic state representative whose district includes the accident scene, where the interstate dives downhill, meets up with Route 161, Route 1, Interstate 395 and Oil Mill Road in quick succession, and then bends eastward around the Golden Spur of the Niantic River.
State transportation officials said, however, that accident data do not show the East Lyme stretch of I-95 to be an unusually dangerous roadway.
There were 500 accidents on the 3.16-mile stretch between exits 73 and 80 between 2003 and 2006, the most recent years for which figures were available from the state Department of Transportation.
Of those crashes, none was fatal, and just two led to injuries classified as severe by the department.
Nearly 27,000 vehicles crashed on the full 111-mile length of I-95 in Connecticut over the same period, claiming 76 lives and leaving more than 100 motorists and passengers with serious injuries.
“On face value, it doesn't appear that area is particularly problematic,” said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the DOT, referring to the accident statistics for that portion of I-95. “Any accident to us is a concern. But I don't necessarily see a pattern in that area that is a red flag.”
Nursick counseled against jumping to conclusions about the cause of Friday's accident, which was still being cleaned up Friday evening. It was “a little premature” to tie the crash to infrastructure conditions, he said.
Yet Friday's crash — which killed three, including the driver of the tanker, and shut down I-95 in both directions for hours — quickly prompted officials like Jutila to redouble their calls for comprehensive improvements to what they consider a dangerous portion of the coastline's highway artery.
“I think most people who know anything about it, who travel it frequently, know that it's a terrible stretch of highway, and some things need to be done to rectify it,” said Jutila, a member of the legislature's Transportation Committee who had, by coincidence, already requested a meeting of area legislators and Transportation Commissioner Ralph J. Carpenter when the accident occurred. “I don't think it's an average stretch of highway at all. I think it's incredibly bad.”
The accident occurred at what is already a crossroads of southeastern Connecticut highway commuters and commercial traffic, where I-395 branches off from the shoreline artery, carrying traffic toward Mohegan Sun, Norwich and north to Worcester, Mass.
Navigating the highway there can be perilous, Jutila said, as out-of-town casino visitors try to decide whether to head north on I-395 or stay straight, headed for Foxwoods Resort Casino, all in the midst of a busy interstate traffic shuttling between Boston and New York. Area residents can also have trouble, he said, because the northbound I-95 on-ramps, like the one at exit 74, require motorists to cross several lanes of traffic to reach I-395.
East Lyme Fire Marshal Richard Morris said that in recent years there have been a number of significant accidents at that junction.
Morris said Friday's accident is the second catastrophic motor vehicle accident at that part of the highway in recent memory. About a decade ago, a truck carrying a large load of cooking oil crashed and ignited near exit 74, causing major delays.
“That's a bad stretch of highway right there,” said Robert Byrne, who was at the scene Friday. Byrne has lived on nearby Gurley Road for the past 21 years and said that section of road is “absolutely” dangerous.
Former East Lyme First Selectman Wayne Fraser, who also lives on Gurley Road, said the split with interstates 95 and 395 has been the location of “an exorbitant amount of accidents,” adding that the stretch is the worst part of I-95 east of the Connecticut River.
Jutila is among those in the legislature who have pushed the hardest for the state to widen I-95 to three lanes in the area between Old Saybrook and New London, and has also urged the completion of long-delayed Route 11 — which would meet I-95 and I-395 in a massive interchange near where Friday's accident occurred.
State accident records show the most frequent contributing factors in crashes on I-95, by a sizable margin, are related to driver error.
Nearly 40 percent of crashes on the highway between January 2003 and December 2006 were attributed to “following too closely,” according to DOT records. The next most frequent factors — drivers changing lanes improperly, losing control of their vehicles, and speeding too fast for road conditions — each accounted for more than 10 percent of all accidents.
That is just as true on the East Lyme stretch, according to the DOT records. One hundred fifty-seven of the 500 accidents between 2003 and 2006 were caused at least in part by drivers following too close to other cars, the state files said.
Day Staff Writer M. Matthew Clark contributed to this report.