Danger zone

Construction area accidents pile up
By Kyle Perrotti | Mar 13, 2017
Photo by: Gna Wyatt This photo, taken by Gna Wyatt with One12 Photography out of Clyde, shows the aftermath of last week's fiery pileup.

A busy construction area on U.S. 74 near Exit 104 in Haywood County has been the scene of 10 accidents in the past two weeks.

These include a five-car pileup March 1; a fiery four-car pileup on March 3; another accident leading to a five-car pile up; along with seven other smaller two-vehicle accidents. These incidents led to a N.C. Department of Transportation review of the situation and institute safety measures, but there was still another four-car pileup Thursday.

This traffic accident involving multiple cars backed up traffic for over an hour in the westbound lane near Exit 104 Thursday afternoon.

The investigation into Thursday's wreck is still ongoing. First responders struggled to weave through traffic to get to the scene of the wreck and ambulances had to wait for cars to back out of the busy construction zone before they could reach the potentially injured motorists.

Trooper Luke Pate said that isn't too abnormal, given the situation.

"That's just part of it," he said.


A trouble area

N.C. Highway Patrol records provide details of the accidents investigated so far since the construction zone since work started on Feb. 27. Three of the accidents involved more than two vehicles and one resulted in multiple vehicle fires.

"It's pretty much the exact same spot," said Trooper Chad Johnson, who worked the second multi-vehicle pileup.

Gna Wyatt, of Clyde, drove by the fiery scene on March 3 shortly after cars caught on fire.

"It probably hadn't been long after it happened because there wasn't much backed up traffic and there weren't any emergency vehicles there yet," she said.

As she inched past the scene, she saw smoke billowing from the high flames and even heard the cars' tires exploding under the immense heat.

"It sounded like multiple little explosions as we drove past," she said.

Sgt. Roger Smith from the N.C. Highway Patrol said the cause of most of these wrecks was identified as “failure to reduce speed.” While this indicates speeding, it could also be indicative of a lack of attention paid to the road.

Smith, who has been a supervisor at the Clyde Highway Patrol Office since 2013, said seeing this many accidents on one stretch of road over a short period of time is unusual.

Along with the Highway Patrol, the N.C. Department of Transportation has been taking measures to mitigate the risk to both drivers and construction workers.

DOT spokesperson David Uchiyama said last week, safety engineers, the project inspector and executives all met in Clyde to look at ways to increase safety for drivers and construction crews.

“In cooperation with state Highway Patrol, we dropped the speed limit to 50 miles per hour and installed 'reduce speed' signs ahead of the area,” he said. “We altered the traffic pattern for safety while still allowing the contractor to grade, pave and construct a concrete median wall.”


Slow down

Despite the efforts to prevent further accidents — and hopefully prevent any fatalities — Smith said people are still speeding through the area. The Highway Patrol has two cars stationed near the construction zone in the morning and the evening, and he said they are “catching quite a few speeders.” But at the end of the day, as Thursday’s wreck proved, it may not be enough.

“I personally think it’s strange, and I think it's due to people not paying attention and not slowing down,” he said.

Uchiyama said the contractor is now using the maximum number of workers allowed in the area in order to condense what was a scheduled two-month project into a two-week project.

“The dream estimate is to have it open to two lanes Friday if weather cooperates,” he said.