Deadly accident spurs calls to make K-10 safer
For Briana Arensberg, it happened in a split second.
She was headed west about 8:20 p.m. Aug. 21 on Kansas Highway 10 near Eudora when suddenly a trailer slammed into the side of her vehicle and caused her Mitsubishi sport utility vehicle to flip over.
The trailer had come loose from an eastbound vehicle and traveled across the 60-foot grass median before pieces of wood splintered into Arensberg’s SUV on impact. The 22-year-old Kansas University student was OK after suffering abrasions on her arm and under her chin. A Missouri man had more serious injuries after a similar incident in January when a trailer came loose and struck a vehicle near De Soto.
Bad memories flooded back for Arensberg on April 16 when she learned of a cross-median crash near the same spot of her accident on the highway east of the Church Street interchange. Two people, including 5-year-old Cainan Shutt of Eudora, died in the head-on crash after an eastbound car driven by 24-year-old Ryan Pittman of Eudora, who also died, crossed the median and struck the westbound minivan Cainan’s stepgrandfather, Danny Basel, was driving.
Now Arensberg is one of thousands of people on Facebook who have written to state officials, including Gov. Sam Brownback, following the lead of Eudora Mayor Scott Hopson urging the Kansas Department of Transportation to install cable median barriers to impede out-of-control vehicles from crossing over into the wrong lane.
“A cable system would help prevent accidents like these and also save the lives of those we love,” Arensberg said.
Brownback last week directed KDOT Secretary Deb Miller to reopen a study on the cable barriers on K-10 and to expedite a project to widen K-10 shoulders in Douglas County and install rumble strips. A local group including Lawrence and Eudora city officials will provide input in the cable median barrier study.
But KDOT officials on Friday said that the cable barriers were not a “silver bullet” in being able to stop all crashes and that engineers studying the highway need to look at many issues when deciding whether to install the barriers. One consideration is, if medians on K-10 become narrower due to the cable, would it cause more accidents because drivers who normally can regain control instead collide with the barrier?
“That’s why we’ve got to look at it all,” said Kim Qualls, a KDOT spokeswoman.
Ali Shutt, Cainan’s mother, Hopson and other supporters on the Facebook group asking KDOT to install the cables say K-10 has become alarmingly dangerous because of the number of cross-median fatality crashes.
According to KDOT, from 2000 to 2010, of the 17 crashes that killed 19 people on K-10 between Lawrence and Interstate 435, seven crashes involved cross-median collisions and two more were due to vehicles crossing the median. The causes cited in those crashes were: driver inattention and loss of control, twice; avoiding road debris, once; making an unknown evasive maneuver, four times; speeding during an avoidance maneuver, once; and driver inattention, once.
Proponents of the cable barriers say they are worried because the April 16 accident followed an August cross-median fatality crash near De Soto and another fatality accident in October when a woman was driving the wrong way for several miles.
Other states have reported success with installing cable median barriers, and Jorma Duran, a Missouri Department of Transportation spokesman, said the agency estimates the cables save about 50 lives a year in crashes on all of the state’s four-lane highways. He said 400 people were killed in cross-median crashes statewide from 1996 to 2005, and cross-median crash fatalities have dropped to single digits per year since cable median barriers were installed on various four-lane highways starting in 2006.
But Jerry Younger, a KDOT deputy secretary and the state’s transportation engineer, said cross-median fatality numbers in Missouri were much higher than Kansas mainly because of high traffic rates and narrower medians. Younger said Kansas annually averages five cross-median crash fatalities on its entire 1,000 miles of four-lane divided highways.
K-10 east of Lawrence to I-435 in Johnson County also had fewer fatality accidents from 2000 to 2010 compared with roughly the same stretch of Interstate 70 to I-435, which has a concrete median barrier, on the Kansas Turnpike, according to KDOT statistics. K-10 over the 24.5-mile stretch had 2,840 total accidents, including 17 accidents that involved fatalities and 561 injury accidents, compared with 3,553 accidents on 23 miles of I-70 that included 19 accidents that involved fatalities and 746 injury accidents. On K-10, 19 people died in those crashes and 756 were injured, while 21 died on I-70 and 1,164 were injured.
K-10, which is a major commuter corridor, also has an average daily traffic count in that stretch that is higher than I-70, which part of a cross-country interstate highway that had higher amounts of commercial truck traffic, according to KDOT. From 2004-2008, the section of K-10 averaged 33,568 vehicles per day compared with 31,075 on I-70, Qualls said.
K-10’s fatality crash rate during that period was 0.56 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with 0.69 on I-70 and the average on all of the state’s highways of 1.23.
Dean Sicking, a University of Nebraska civil engineering professor who studied the state’s four-lane highway system in 2008, said he considered the numbers on the two highways to be comparable. He said having a cross-median crash on I-70 would be rare compared with K-10 because of the concrete barrier in place, but he said fatality crashes still occur there for various other reasons.
Area commuters who travel on K-10 daily said the recent cross-median crashes are a major concern along with what seems to be increasing traffic and the speeds that people drive.
Patty Noland, who has commuted to Lawrence mostly as part of a daily car pool from her home in the Kansas City area since 1998, said K-10 seems to have become busier in the last 13 years.
“The main thing I notice is just people speeding and going way too fast,” said Noland, who works in Kansas University’s School of Journalism. “I think that might be part of the problem, people going too rapidly and they lose control.”
Noland said K-10 for the most part doesn’t seem to be overly dangerous, although she called the fatality accidents in recent months “alarming” and said it likely would be beneficial for the state to install the cable median barriers.
Jim Hall, a Lawrence resident who drives to the Kansas City area for work, said law enforcement should focus more on the area, especially on violations such as tailgating other vehicles.
“As law enforcement has gotten more relaxed, it has allowed people to be less stringent on their driving habits,” Hall said.
Don Hughes, a technical trooper with the Kansas Highway Patrol, said troopers do try to patrol the highway and dedicate extra patrols to the area when they can.
Greg Benefiel, an assistant Douglas County district attorney who prosecutes traffic and DUI cases, said he notices tickets for higher speeds on K-10 and for vehicles following too closely, which is a concern.
“We see what I consider to be too many (speeding tickets) that are over 90 mph, and we even get the occasional one over 100 mph,” Benefiel said.
Heather Helm, of Eudora, who has commuted for four years to work in Overland Park, said she worries that the amount of people speeding, coupled with possible distractions that drivers have, increases the chances for cross-median crashes and head-on collisions. She’s also skeptical that the median is enough space for some drivers to get stopped or correct their path before entering the oncoming lanes.
“There’s no way if someone’s driving that fast,” she said.
Troopers have said they are still investigating the cause of the April 16 crash, including the possibility that drugs contributed after a preliminary autopsy indicated marijuana, benzodiazepine and methadone were in Pittman’s system.
Hopson and other advocates for cable median barriers said the recent cross-median fatality accidents demonstrate the need for a cable median to stop a vehicle of a driver that perhaps has lost control because of impaired driving or perhaps a medical issue.
KDOT officials say that’s why they want local leaders to be able to provide input in the study.
“It’s important that there will be a committee looking at it,” Qualls said, “and it will help definitely educate as well as address other things people are seeing that maybe just aren’t noted by the numbers.”
By George Diepenbrock