A truck driver whose tractor-trailer smashed into backed up traffic on Interstate 70 Tuesday, causing a wreck that killed five people, was driving too fast and not paying enough attention, the Kansas Highway Patrol said Friday.
Lt. Mark Christensen of the Highway Patrol said it was not clear why the driver, 56-year-old Kenny B. Ford of Texas, was late to slow down when approaching vehicles stopped for construction on I-70 near Bonner Springs, and that the investigation into the wreck is ongoing.
Ford has not been charged in connection with the crash.
The wreck occurred shortly before 2:30 p.m. as traffic bottlenecked in a work zone on I-70 in Kansas. Drivers had been merging into the right lane, slowing down and lining up about a mile from a work zone that would close the left lane.
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The truck rear-ended vehicles that were stopped at the end of that line, killing the five victims and causing a fire that consumed parts of two tractor-trailers and a car.
“It’s just a freak thing that happened,” Christensen said. “What it boils down to is, the driver wasn’t paying attention ahead of him, or the road conditions, and he was just going too fast.”
Construction has been going on in the area for months without any major problems, Christensen said, but traffic appeared to be unusually heavy in the area on Tuesday.
Rear-end collisions, like this week’s, are the most common crashes in highway work zones, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Speeding and inattentive driving are leading factors in such wrecks, along with following too closely.
Fatalities in work zones dropped nationwide starting in the early 2000s, before rising more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2015 — the most recent year data is available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Work zone deaths in Kansas have remained relatively steady since 2010 — the state records between 4 and 8 each year.
Officials from regional state transportation departments have proposed zipper merging, in which drivers take turns merging as they approach where a lane closes, as a possibly safer and more efficient way of navigating work zones.
Signs at the work zone Tuesday did not call for zipper merging. It’s unclear if that would have prevented the pileup on the Kansas Turnpike in Bonner Springs.
Transportation officials say drivers can stay safe in work zones by paying attention to road work signs, driving more slowly and leaving a safe distance between themselves and the vehicles ahead.
Scott Shambaugh, 53, of Nashville, was headed west in his Chevy Avalanche when he heard brakes squealing.
He looked in his side-view mirrors and saw a GMC Terrain headed for the retaining wall on his left and a Buick LaCrosse moving toward the guardrail to his right. They had both been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. The semi-truck smashed into a Ford Taurus, pushing it into another tractor-trailer behind Shambaugh.
The front of the tractor-trailer lifted off the ground and begin to twist in mid-air, Shambaugh said. The truck hit Shambaugh’s pickup, leaving the rear of his truck “pretty smashed in.”
Shambaugh left his pickup to try to help the people trapped between the two semi-trucks. He said he was the second person to arrive but there was already “nothing anybody could do” for the five people in the three passenger vehicles.
Shambaugh was not physically injured. He was held at the scene by first responders for three-and-a-half hours and continued on to work in Lawrence, where his company maintains a cellphone tower.
He said he did not see any cars in the left lane either ahead or behind him when the crash occurred.
“I don’t know why that guy didn’t move into the left lane when he realized he wasn’t gonna be able to stop,” Shambaugh said, in reference to the driver of the tractor-trailer that started the wreck.
Work zone danger
In past wrecks when tractor-trailers have crashed in work zones, the results have often been devastating.
A 2006 wreck about 30 miles east of Columbia claimed the lives of four Kansas City women when a tractor-trailer failed to slow down and plowed into a line of seven cars backed up on I-70 for a lane closure caused by another accident.
The driver was acquitted on manslaughter charges. A civil suit ended with an $18 million settlement between the trucking company and victims’ families.
In 2004, construction zones along a stretch of U.S. 50 northeast of Wichita were the scene of seven traffic deaths in a single week. Two other people had died the previous May.
The deaths all followed from tractor-trailers hitting vehicles that had stopped or slowed down near where the two-lane highway was restricted to one lane.
Those wrecks came at a time when the nation saw many more work zone traffic deaths than it does today, peaking at 1,181 in 2002.
How to stay safe in a construction zone
David Dixon, 55, has been a trucker for 35 years. He hits the brakes as soon as he sees a sign announcing road work. But he says other motorists drive distracted when they pass through construction.
“You see them talking on their cell phones, brushing their teeth, putting makeup on. The highway is no place for that to happen,” Dixon said.
Dixon is based out of Burleson, Texas, a small town outside of Fort Worth, but was stopped on Friday at an Oak Grove truck stop. He said speeding is another problem, both for truckers and passenger cars.
“They have one thing on their mind, to get where they’re going. Is it really that important? Slow down,” he said. “I’ve got loads to haul every day. That load ain’t gonna get there any faster than when I get it there.”
Construction zones are rife with crashes, said Tony Dorsey, a spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
“Drivers have to do their part. They have to pay attention. They have to be watching the roads — looking for changes in the signage,” Dorsey said.
On I-70, there were five signs indicating road work ahead between mile markers 225 and 218.3, said Rachel Bell, a spokeswoman for the Turnpike Authority. There was another sign indicating the temporary lane closure at mile marker 218.3. The wreck occurred just a tenth of a mile beyond that sign, according to a preliminary investigative report from the Turnpike Authority.
Road work has been ongoing at a toll plaza just ahead of the site of the wreck since early March. The temporarily closed lane was scheduled to be reopened at 3:30 p.m., about an hour after the wreck occurred. Such closures have been occurring on a rotating basis for a couple of weeks as the Turnpike Authority’s contractor upgrades the toll plaza, Bell said.
Other, less serious wrecks were reported around that area this week. About two hours before Tuesday’s fatal wreck, traffic had been temporarily slowed for a non-injury accident near a work zone about six miles to the east, near Kansas 7. On Friday, another wreck occurred closer to Tuesday’s crash scene, but no life-threatening injuries were reported.
Sign spacing and the number of them are dependent on speed, the purpose of the sign, the department’s expectations and the type of traffic control needed, said Nicole Randall, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Drivers should start slowing down as soon as they see signs for construction, said Tom Whitaker, the executive director of the Kansas Motor Carriers Association. For a tractor-trailer, that slowdown takes a lot longer than a normal passenger car.
To avoid rear-end collisions, drivers should leave two seconds of braking distance between them and the next car, according to KDOT. The amount of space required to provide those two seconds increases the faster traffic is moving.
Speeding is a surefire way to crash, Whitaker said, and tractor-trailers are meant to drive below the speed limit.
“Be prepared to stop,” Whitaker said. “Think ahead.”
Shane Sanderson: 816-234-4440, @shanersanderson
Ellen Cagle: 816-234-4440, @ellen_cagle
Staying safe in a work zone:
1. Slow down and pay attention to signs as you approach road work.
2. Watch for other warnings: a "flagger ahead" warning sign may be posted in the work zone. Stay alert and obey the flagger's directions. In a work zone, a flagger has the same authority as a regulatory sign.
3. Leave two seconds of braking distance between you and the car in front of you. The amount of space required to provide those two seconds increases if traffic is moving faster.
4. Keep a safe distance between your vehicle and traffic barriers, trucks, construction equipment and workers.
5. If you know there is construction with a detour, plan ahead and find an alternate route.
Source: The Kansas Department of Transportation