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24 accidents in one month in 11-mile stretch

Narrow lanes, construction zone prompt pleas for motorist caution
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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The 11-mile stretch of Interstate 80 known as the Emigrant Gap construction zone has become a treacherous area for motorists and construction workers alike.

In July there were 24 accidents through the construction site between Emigrant Gap and Rainbow, one of which resulted in a fatality, according to California Highway Patrol Sgt. Sven Miller.

As a result, the California Highway Patrol and California Department of Transportation have come together to alert motorists traveling through the construction area to slow down to the posted 55 miles per hour and avoid aggressive driving behaviors like passing and tailgating.

In the last 10 days there have been five crashes in the Emigrant Gap construction zone, three of which involved big rig trucks. Two of the trucks that crashed overturned after the drivers fell asleep and the most recent of which occurred Thursday when a truck had a tire blow out, according to Miller.

Wes Murer, north region safety specialist with Teichert Construction, the company that is doing the work on the Emigrant Gap area, said Thursday's incident is an example of why drivers need to be careful in the area.

"Luckily everyone was following the rules and driving at a safe speed, so we averted a bigger accident there," Murer said.

That hasn't been the case in most other instances.

For example, Miller pulled over a driver going 81 miles per hour in the construction zone around 6:20 a.m. Thursday. The driver was not only speeding, but also allegedly intoxicated and had previously driven into the coned off lane where Caltrans employees where working and came close to hitting someone, Miller said.

He was also driving under a suspended license and was arrested for it along with a DUI charge.

Rochelle Jenkins, spokesperson for Caltrans, said the man arrested Thursday morning is a "poster child" for how not to drive in the Emigrant Gap construction zone.

"We're narrow, we're long and people are just blowing through," Jenkins said. "If you made a laundry list of things we don't want you to do, he hit on just about everything."

While passing is not illegal in the 11-mile stretch, Miller said it is highly discouraged due to the narrowness of the lanes. The lanes in the construction zone are 11 feet wide, a foot narrower than a normal lane.

The speed limit in the construction zone is 55 miles per hour and Caltrans has determined that speeding through the 11-mile stretch at 65 miles per hour saves around 1 minute 54 seconds. Jenkins said even drivers who obey the posted speed limit and don't pass are under pressure when they drive through the area.

"We have people who are following the rules but are being approached by these aggressive drivers," Jenkins said.

A "barrel boneyard," as Caltrans employees call it, is enclosed near a sand barn off of Interstate 80 in the construction zone. It's where all of the dented and damaged traffic barrels are thrown after drivers hit them.

Miller said in addition to increasing the amount of police presence in the Emigrant Gap construction zone, radar signs and "do not pass" advisory signs have been posted. While most of the 24 accidents that happened in July resulted in no injury, most were due to unsafe passing.

One of the bigger problems is when aggressive drivers follow others who are trying to obey the law too closely.

"Humans can only react so quickly and if something happens in front of you and you're right up on someone's bumper the chances of reacting in time are significantly reduced," Miller said.

Murer said it's important to remember that taking care when passing through the Emigrant Gap construction zone is not only for the sake of the motorists, but also the construction workers.

"These are regular people, just like you and me, they have families, kids and wives, they're not machines," Murer said.

Contact Amber Marra at amberm@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.