Formica: “Our hearts go out to families of victims in the I-95 crash” [The Day]

October 20, 2017

Article as it appeared in The Day

The dump truck involved in Wednesday’s double-fatal crash on a notorious stretch of Interstate 95 was cited less than two months ago for a brake-related violation, federal records show.

According to a state police report, the crash killed two 71-year-old women at 1:55 p.m. near Exit 71. It involved a tractor-trailer, a 2003 Ford Mustang and the dump truck, which is owned by Country Gardens of Bristol.

Police said the tractor-trailer, operated by 58-year-old Francis R. Cosenza of East Haven, was stopped in the right lane for traffic just prior to the wreck. Guilford resident Eleanor A. McCarthy, in her Mustang, was stopped in the right lane behind the tractor-trailer.

That’s when dump truck driver Gregory Kuzma, 47, of Bristol began approaching the car, according to the report. Marks in the pavement indicate Kuzma was braking heavily, but police said he was unable to stop before colliding with the back of the Mustang.

The impact sent the Mustang spinning into the tractor-trailer, at which point it burst into flames. Police said McCarthy and her passenger, Iris B. Cooper of Ambler, Pa., were fatally injured in the collision.

Police have not charged anyone in the crash, which remains under investigation.

State accident data shows the stretch of highway between Exit 71 and the split with I-395 has had the highest number of accidents of any stretch east of the Connecticut River. On Thursday, local elected officials renewed their calls for speed control measures and a stronger state police presence.

“This is a significant problem that the state of Connecticut needs to fix,” East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said. “How many more people have to die before we take this issue seriously? How many more families are going to lose loved ones?”

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Country Gardens of Bristol, which specializes in commercial landscaping and irrigation installation, owns six vehicles and employs three drivers. Its six inspections over the past two years have yielded 12 violations, none of which was deemed “critical” by the safety administration.

Officials most recently inspected the truck involved in Wednesday’s crash on Aug. 25. At the time, officials cited the truck for violating Section 393.43 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The section outlines various requirements for trucks that tow other vehicles. Its goal is to ensure a driver can stop his or her own vehicle as well as the one that’s being towed in the event of an emergency.

The Country Gardens truck on Wednesday was towing an excavator.

FMCSA officials couldn’t be reached to clarify what specifically led to the August citation. A man who answered the phone number listed for Country Gardens said the company wasn’t interested in commenting.

It couldn’t be determined whether the issue that prompted the August violation was corrected prior to Wednesday’s crash or played a role in the accident.

Barriers, high-speed shoulders installed

Wednesday marked the eighth time since 2015 that at least one person has died in a crash between Exits 70 and 76, which span from Old Lyme to East Lyme. The stretch of road, which makes up about 5 percent of Interstate 95 in Connecticut, has accounted for more than 17 percent of its fatal wrecks over the past almost two years.

Other such hotspots exist in the state, and some, such as the portion that runs through Bridgeport, are considerably more fatal. Still, stakeholders have taken note of the Old Lyme-East Lyme stretch’s propensity for crashes.

The state Department of Transportation, for example, recently wrapped up a nearly two-year project in which workers installed a 4-mile-long concrete median barrier in the area. Crews also installed right shoulder concrete barriers, repaired the Exit 71 south on- and off-ramps, added high-speed shoulders and paved the whole stretch.

In announcing a study to investigate safety improvements to I-95, DOT officials last year identified the section from the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge to the Gold Star Memorial Bridge as eastern Connecticut’s biggest problem spot. An update on the status of the study, which could cost up to $500,000, wasn’t immediately available Thursday.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick cautioned against placing blame on the roadway.

“It is disturbing that this appears to be a typical and far too common case of driver error with tragic results,” Nursick said. “Exactly what is it going to take to get people to focus on driving safely and responsibly?”

He urged those having conversations about road safety not to forget about the critical role drivers play. A pristine roadway, after all, means nothing if drivers aren’t paying attention.

“Every facet of safe infrastructure is predicated first and foremost on drivers being attentive and responsible,” he said.

Warning signs called for

Politicians representing East Lyme and Old Lyme have rebuked Nursick for similar comments in the past.

On Thursday, Nickerson, the East Lyme first selectman, reiterated his belief that the state should significantly upgrade the highway system in the area. He said it should try to use federal money to do so.

But Nickerson also noted many drivers aren’t obeying the speed limit, using turn signals, staying off their cell phones or driving at safe distances apart.

To help mitigate that, he said the state should implement speed control measures, such as speed cameras in the stretch between the Baldwin Bridge and the Gold Star Bridge.

Nickerson acknowledged that state police are understaffed but said law enforcement should be a constant presence on the highway.

Nickerson said he additionally has been asking for warning signs along the dangerous stretch of road that remind drivers to be hyper-aware of their surroundings and not to make the errors mentioned above.

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said accidents like Wednesday’s are tragic and she also is concerned about her first responders and how these types of incidents wear on them.

“Of course, it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We all feel it very deeply when these kind of things happen. We’ve just seen it far too often.”

Reemsnyder recommended more police patrols and speed reduction initiatives.

Reemsnyder said she’s not a traffic engineer, so while there’s a lot of talk about widening I-95, she’s not sure whether it would address the issue or just add more traffic to the road.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said: “Our hearts go out to the families of these victims.”

 He said he and Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, have been in contact with the DOT over the past year or so and have written letters asking for speed reduction on the highway, and they are renewing those calls. He said at the least, the state should widen the shoulder area and place warning signs on the bridge that the road will go from four lanes down to two lanes.

 Carney contacted the DOT to visit the area and revisit the issue. He said he is in discussions with DOT and is looking into any possible safety measures, including a stepped-up police presence, potential opportunities to enlarge break-down lanes, and additional signage to notify drivers, for example, if there is traffic up ahead or when four lanes merge into two.

He said these types of accidents are happening too often on this stretch of road.

“Something’s got to give this time,” Carney added. “It clogs up Old Lyme’s roads and it leads to fatal accidents. What happened yesterday was terrible.”