Accidents along Georgia interstate construction zone raise concerns

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A FOX 5 I-Team investigation has documented a huge increase in accidents, injuries, and deaths along a 13 mile stretch of I-20 in Carroll County. 

Local law enforcement is worried. A teacher’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the contractor.  However, the DOT says a higher volume of traffic is the main reason for the jump in accidents.

On I-20 about 11 miles from the Alabama line, it's another day, another accident.

We came here to investigate fatal accidents along this scary stretch of road.  This truck driver told us he was caught off guard by traffic suddenly slowing down, and ran off the road, rather than into the cars in front of him.

“Did my very best to avoid hitting anybody else,” the driver told us.

In this accident, no one was hurt. But, a FOX 5 I-Team investigation has found hundreds of others weren't so lucky. According to records from the DOT and Georgia State Patrol, from the beginning of construction along this 13 mile stretch of highway in 2016 until now, there have been over 1000   accidents, with more than 240 injuries, 64 serious injuries. 13 people died. 224 accidents involved tractor trailers.

The resurfacing project is a tight corridor, with often only 2-foot shoulders, and a confusing split in the freeway that suddenly puts westbound drivers heading directly next to Eastbound traffic.

We asked Carroll County Corporal Chad Sherriff if they expected these kind of accidents when construction began.

“No. Nothing like this. Man, we knew pretty quick there would be fatalities the way it was going,” Sheriff told us.

Sheriff has patrolled this stretch of highway for more than 15 years. In 2016 when the road project began, it didn't take long for the accidents to start piling up.

“We’d be working one wreck, get done with that. Get interstate cleared up. Hour later we'd be sitting right back in the same spot. No room, no room for error, it’s so tight

Then people started dying. One after another.

“Mainly people on their phones, not paying attention once something happened, or traffic slowed down, coming in, they slide up under a tractor trailer,” said Sheriff.

In September of 2017, law enforcement and first responders from 8 agencies got together to express concern to the DOT and a contractor Archer Western about the "number of fatal accidents...since construction started" 

They wanted additional police cars parked at the beginning of the construction zone to slow drivers down. The DOT told them local law enforcement agencies would have to provide that.

The FOX I-Team examined the 8 fatal accident reports occurring between August 2016 TO September 2017.  We found 4 mentioned "slowing for traffic" or "slowing for road construction"  

The deaths caught the attention of FOX 5 traffic reporter Katie Beasley last year.  After her report, a DOT traffic engineer was asked if 8 fatalities was high. The answer: "Yes, 8 fatalities in 1.5 years is very high."

But, DOT spokesperson Natalie Dale says when the I-Team asked about crashes the department examined more traffic data and concluded there are more accidents because more cars are on the road. 100,000 more vehicle miles since construction started. She says that means the crash rate - accidents per miles driven - actually declined during the three years of construction.

So why were officers so upset?

“While being in the middle of it you may feel like there is a significant increase of crashes, but when you step back and look at the numbers, there is also a significant increase in volume,” says Dale.

Natalie Dale points out that the DOT also spent an additional 1.6 million dollars to build 2 foot shoulders to help cars from running off the road. She points out there has been only one fatal accident since September 2017.

“In July 2017 we asked 2 things of our contractor and since then we've seen injuries go down and fatalities go down,” said Dale.

Attorney Alan Hamilton represents the family of Jasmine McGhee - the woman killed in that September 2017 accident. She was a Douglas county schoolteacher. 26 years old. Hamilton argues traffic in front of her had slowed almost to a stop.

The police report indicates a tractor-trailer driver behind her was "distracted, attempting to retrieve his phone and following to close."  He rear-ended Jasmine McGhee, killing her.

McGhee's family settled with the trucking company. Then sued the contractor Archer Western. 

“It was on Archer Western to implement the traffic control plan and to do things to make this project safe,” says Hamilton.

Hamilton acknowledges the tractor-trailer driver was distracted, but contends Archer Western should have had a police car with blue lights ahead of all the warning signs to slow drivers down. 

Archer Western denied any negligence or wrongdoing in its answer to the suit and pointed out the crash report that identified a "distracted" driver of the tractor-trailer.

“We believe the officer was far forward, far further into the stoppage, where it is not providing any warning to the motorist approaching like Jasmine, or the trucker who hit her,” said Hamilton

The project is expected to be completed by theend of the year.

It is Workforce Awareness Week right now and the DOT urges everyone to slow down, give himself or herself extra space, and eliminate all distractions when entering a work zone.

Someone’s life is in your hands.