I've never really considered myself a nervous driver, save for the first time I was on I-94 and found myself surrounded by semi-trucks.

The fact that my pants remained unsoiled was an absolute miracle.

Since then, though, I've always felt confident behind the wheel. I went to college at Indiana University in South Bend, commuting back and forth multiple times per week for several years. Each time, I traveled the infamous stretch of road — U.S. Hwy. 20 — that has been the site of eight crash-related deaths this year alone.

Even now, my college days long in the rear-view mirror, I travel the stretch frequently as my in-laws live in South Bend. These days, though, while traveling on 20, I find myself at a heightened level of alert, specifically when it comes to oncoming traffic.

The rash of fatal incidents along this corridor and the nationwide issue of distracted driving are not merely coincidental. Several of these accidents have been linked — or at least suspected — to be the result of distracted driving.

Cell phones, radios, passengers, etc., all have the opportunity to distract the driver. On 20 — where all that separates eastbound drivers from westbound ones is four feet of nothing, save for a couple stripes of paint — the stakes are high for the driver when it comes to keeping their eyes on the road.

One minor error causing the driver to drift a few feet in the wrong direction, which can happen in less than a second, could cause disaster.

So, it's clear to me that something needs to be done on this stretch of road, and it most likely should include some sort of median to better separate the sides of the road. I reached out to Doug Moats, media relations director for the Indiana Department of Transportation Northwest District, looking for some guidance on what safety improvements to that stretch of road could look like. Moats worked with Traffic Engineer Alan Holderread to get answers to my questions.

One idea I had was to — temporarily — put up concrete construction barriers while a more permanent solution was considered and/or implemented.

Moats said that permanent plans are being considered by INDOT, but that concrete barriers are not a possibility.

"The problem with barriers are the many, many driveways and county roads that it would restrict access to," Moats said, adding that U-turns would be necessary to reach those driveways or roads. "To provide openings in the wall to allow access would not be safe, either. Any opening in the wall would be a blunt end that would be hazardous to motorists, even with an impact attenuator on the end."

How about a grassy median, like the one that exists between the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 20 and Ind. 2 and South Bend?

Moats said it's been considered, but, "fitting that in along with drainage ditches and utilities would take a lot of real estate, forcing us to buy out houses and possibly businesses."

There is a plan, Moats said, to include rumble strips in the center of the road as part of resurfacing projects that are coming up in the near future. While that doesn't provide a physical barrier, the noise created by cars making contact with them could alert the driver in time to make necessary corrections and avoid head-on impact.

The most realistic idea, according to Moats, is to install a 16-foot-wide center turn lane. This would require 12 feet of widening, when factoring in the existing four feet that already exists separating east from westbound lanes. This plan would cost signficantly less and would avoid a lot of houses when compared to, say, a grassy median, which should be in the range of 30-60 feet wide.

While not a perfect solution, it's clearly better than what exists now, which is next to nothing. Even this cheaper project comes at a hefty cost, though. Without doing any actual calcuations, Moats and Holderread came up with an estimated, ballpark cost of $30 million to $50 million to install the center turn lane on this 11-mile stretch of 20.

It's a lot of money and would be a huge project. But, people are dying. None of us are comfortable with that fact, so it's time to do something. Long past time, actually. 

In the meantime, keep your heads up and stay alert. Be safe.

Contact Managing Editor Adam Parkhouse at aparkhouse@thenewsdispatch.com or 1-219-214-4170.


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