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After 8 people die on I-81 this week, focus turns to safety

  • By Ivey DeJesus/
Police and rescue workers arrive on the scene of a bus crash late Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County ,Pa. The crash occurred between a passenger vehicle and charter bus carrying up to 50 passengers causing multiple fatalities and injuries.

 (Pennsylvania State Police via AP

Police and rescue workers arrive on the scene of a bus crash late Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023, in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County ,Pa. The crash occurred between a passenger vehicle and charter bus carrying up to 50 passengers causing multiple fatalities and injuries.

Eight people lost their lives in two horrific crashes that occurred on a 60-mile stretch of I-81 south and north of Harrisburg in just four days this week, raising new questions about the safety of one of the busiest interstates in Pennsylvania.

While both fatal crashes in Dauphin and Franklin counties remain under investigation, officials say speed, aggressive driving and driver behavior contribute to most incidents.

In the latest incident, on Wednesday evening, five people were killed in a two-vehicle crash in Greene Township, Franklin County.

That accident appears to be among a small percentage – 4 percent – that involve equipment failure.

In its preliminary investigation, Pennsylvania State Police determined that a motorhome RV, traveling south on I-81, had a front left tire blowout, causing it to travel across the grassy median and into the northbound lanes, colliding head-on with a tractor trailer.

The driver of the tractor trailer and all occupants of the RV were pronounced dead at the scene.

On Sunday night, a motor coach hit a car and flipped over on I -81 in Dauphin County in heavy rain, killing three. All 48 passengers, including the bus driver, were transported to area hospitals for treatment.

Beyond the loss of life, the grieving of families, the traffic backlog, the tragedies underscore the perennial challenge of safety on highways.

“The best thing people can do is be their own advocate and drive responsibly. Expect the unexpected to occur,” said Chris Lengle, executive director of the Highway Safety Network, which works with state police and transportation officials to keep abreast of trends and patterns impacting highway safety.

While there is no panacea to stave off tragedies on the highway, Lengle said several key factors in recent months have factored into fatal crashes.

Aggressive driving and speeding – the number one contributing factor – are on the rise.

“We are seeing that speed on highways is increasing,” Lengle said. “Speed-related crashes are probably higher than they were pre-pandemic as more people are coming out. Everyone is going back to work on the highways. There’s more vehicles out there, however speeds have not reduced. We are seeing higher speeds on our highways.”

Nationwide, 85-90% of all traffic crashes involve driver error.

According to the 2022 Pennsylvania Crash Facts and Statistics by PennDOT, the 1,179 traffic crash-related fatalities in 2022 represent the fourth lowest number of fatalities in Pennsylvania.

PennDOT records show heavy trucks, which include tractor trailers, were involved in 164 fatal crashes last year; alcohol was a factor in 320 fatal crashes; and speed accounted for 268 of those fatal incidents.

Certain types of collisions were more prevalent than others. For instance, there were more incidents involving a single vehicle hitting a fixed object (such as a tree, guide rail, etc.) than any other.

Crashes involving pedestrians, although they occurred much less frequently, resulted in the third highest number of fatalities.

When it comes to types of fatal crashes last year:

  • 31% involved a car hitting a fixed object;
  • 13% were head-on collisions;
  • 20% involved rear-end collisions.

For now, investigators are calling Wednesday’s crash an anomaly.

“What happened last night certainly sounds like a very tragic accident,” said Lt. Adam Reed of the Pennsylvania State Police.

“It’s unfortunate anytime anyone loses their life, let alone five individuals losing their lives in any given crash. It sounds like a very tragic accident. A fluke occurrence.”

The collision happened in an area targeted for traffic enforcement. This summer, police put extra patrols on I-81 in Franklin, Cumberland, Dauphin and Lebanon counties after records showed that between 2018 to 2022, the department recorded more than 2,000 crashes on I-81. Of those, 42 were deadly.

“I wouldn’t say it is more or less safe than other areas,” Reed said. “It’s a very busy stretch of highway, Anytime you have highways were you have a high volume of traffic like we see on I -81, it is going to lead to higher number of crashes due to sheer volume of traffic. In addition, I-81 is a busy route to truckers, which is apparent to anyone who drives the road on a regular basis.”

Stretches of I -81 across multiple counties, for instance around Carlisle, have reduced speed areas.

“Those targeted areas are targeted because we see higher numbers of crashes in those areas,” Reed said. “It’s important as a driver when traversing I -81 to be mindful of those changes in speed limits.”

The vast majority of crashes investigated by state police, Reed said, are attributed to driver error, although a myriad factors can contribute to the causes of a crash.

One of those factors is weather, although the vast majority (87 %) of crashes recorded by the state occurred under no adverse conditions: Rain was a factor in 9% of crashes; and snow and sleet in only 3%.

That still leaves speed and aggressive behavior as central factors in crashes.

Both seem to be on the rise post pandemic. The reasons for that?

“That’s the million dollar question,” Lengle said. “It’s really hard to commit to any type of trend but I would say that aggressive driving as a whole is becoming an issue. Following too closely. Speeding, weaving in and out of traffic.”

Safety comes down to the defensive tactics on the part of the driver.

“Give yourself an out,” said Lengle, a former law enforcement officer. “Maintain safe following distances so you can bring your vehicle to a stop. There’s only so much we can control. There’s a million variables on the highways. The only ones you can control are the ones you make and that’s your behavior and your speed.”

While large trucks account for a small number of collisions, when they are involved the results can be deadly.

“If a truck is involved in a crash, it’s going to be potentially devastating just because of the sheer size of the vehicle itself,” Lengle said. “You have to be aware around tractor trailers. They have limitations on what they can or cannot see in their mirrors. We as drivers sharing the road with them have to be aware where those blind spots are and what limitations are for that vehicle to stop. It takes a lot longer for a truck to slow down or come to stop. That person passing that tractor trailer may not want to move over to the right lane because that safe driving distance has not yet been established.”

Some additional statistics on fatal crashes on Pennsylvania roads, according to PennDOT:

More crashes occurred on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The number of fatalities on weekends (Saturday and Sunday) is proportionally greater than the number of crashes. This could be attributed to alcohol use.

  • The number fatalities on the road that were alcohol related in 2022: 320.
  • Number of crashes involving speed as a factor: 268.
  • Passenger cars were involved in more crashes than all other vehicle types. Coupled with light trucks, vans, and SUVs, they accounted for the vast majority of crashes and occupant fatalities.
  • Passenger cars/SUV/van fatal crashes: 675.
  • Fatal crashes involving heavy trucks last year: 45.
  • In all age groups, male drivers are involved in more crashes than female drivers. Male drivers ages 21-25 were involved in more crashes than drivers in any other age group (male or female).
  • Tire/wheel and brake-related failures contributed to the majority of vehicle defect related crashes last year: 39% of crashes.
  • Crashes and fatalities were higher during peak traffic times. Some hours of the day experience a low percentage of crashes, but they are much more deadly. For example, only 3.8% of all crashes in 2022 occurred in the 9:00 PM hour, but 5.7% of all fatalities occurred then. The higher volume of traffic itself may be a factor during peak traffic hours, particularly the rush-hours.

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