Overturned trucks can close entire highways — tying up traffic for hours, threatening the environment and and costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in cleanup.
Officials have launched a two-pronged approach to better manage the problem: paying bonuses to towing companies if they clear major accidents in 90 minutes or less and, in some cases, improving safety with new signs and new construction on roads like I-595 and Florida’s Turnpike.
Statewide, the number of rollovers dropped from a high of 708 in 2005 to 296 in 2009, the most recent year figures are available. And towing companies cleared lanes in average of 57.3 minutes last year compared to 60 minutes the previous year, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Transportation.
Some of the rollover problems stem from design of the roads.
You don’t have to be a professional driver to feel the pull of the tight ramps connecting Interstate 595 to Florida’s Turnpike. Seven rollovers occurred there from 2005 to 2009, making it one of the worst spots in the state for such accidents, according to a recent report from the American Transportation Research Institute. The interchange is heavily used by trucks heading to and from Port Everglades.
Other truck rollover hotspots in South Florida:
*The U.S. 27 interchange at the turnpike in Miami-Dade County, 11 rollovers.
*The southbound I-95 ramp to East Copans Road in Pompano Beach, 7 rollovers
*The Donald Ross Road interchange at I-95 in Jupiter, 6 rollovers.
In 2007, a tanker truck carrying 8,000 gallons of fuel rolled over on the I-595 ramp to the northbound Turnpike. The accident snarled turnpike traffic for nearly eight hours.
That same year, the state began using the ‘Rapid Incident Scene Clearance’ program on on I-95, I-75 and I-595. Last year, the program was activated 22 times in South Florida.
The program, introduced on Florida’s Turnpike in 2004, relies on towing companies that need to have advanced certification and high-powered equipment to move big rigs. They earn bonuses up to $3,500 for meeting the 90-minute target and pay penalties if they don’t.
The state is attacking the problem of rollover hotspots in other ways.
A new direct ramp from westbound I-595 to the northbound turnpike opened in December. It eliminated an S-curve that forced drivers to make a sharp left then a sharp right turn to enter the turnpike.
“That’s definitely going to improve things. It already has,” Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Wysocky said.
Crash investigators say speed was a factor in a February 2005 wreck involving a gasoline tanker that overturned and exploded on the northbound turnpike entrance ramp from I-595, killing four people in an adjacent car. Troopers said the driver of the tanker was speeding and driving erratically when his rig veered out of control and toppled onto the car.
Within a year, turnpike officials installed eight larger and brighter speed limit signs and three oversized signs warning drivers that trucks might tip if they take the ramps too fast.
Other changes are currently under construction as part of the $1.8 billion overhaul of I-595. The geometry of some ramps are being changed with gentler curves. And areas where drivers weave to merge from one highway to the other are being eliminated.
On the southbound I-95 ramp to eastbound Copans, no changes are planned. The ramp is marked with a pair of yellow advisory signs telling motorists to slow to 30 mph and black-on-yellow chevron arrow markers around the outside of the curve.
Wysocky said most rollovers are caused by driver error. “The speed they’re going is just too fast for the ramp,” he said.