TDOT Using New Technology To Stop Median Jumping Crashes
By Adam Ghassemi
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It's been more than two years, but Joe Rypkowski still can't drive in the left lane on I-440.
"It just shot that car straight up," he said. "It was horrendous. I mean, it's something I'll never forget."
In August 2011, Rypkowski and his wife were headed home when a woman driving a car in the opposite direction lost control. Her car went over the median and launched into oncoming traffic and landed on top of the pick-up right in front of them, killing the truck's 50-year-old driver.
"We'd have been killed if that was another four seconds down the road, we'd have been killed. There was no doubt in my mind because we wouldn't have seen that," Rypkowski recalled.
Last summer the exact same scenario happened again on I-440 near the Murphy Road exit.
"I saw this big, blue car coming up over the embankment and then the next thing you know I was over on the side of the road climbing out of my car," said victim Rich Hunter, who was injured in that crash.
It's a problem Tennessee Department of Transportation officials aren't ignoring. They've tracked 11 incidents since 2008.
"It rose to a level to get us to do a safety audit," said TDOT Transportation Manager Brian Hurst.
Hurst said the road's hilly medians are part of a design that dates back to the '70s.
"Instead of having your concrete median barrier. They wanted more trees. They wanted more green space," he said. "It was a good solution for this area at the time."
But decades of use has proven it may not be the best.
Engineering consultant Brian Gaffney knows where each accident happened along the interstate's 7-mile stretch.
"We'll look at curves and severity of curves," Gaffney said during a ride touring the stretch.
"On the interior of the curve we actually had someone lose control, fishtail and go over into eastbound traffic," he pointed out at one point.
Crews will inspect 440 during day and at night to figure out if they can improve signs, stripping or guardrails to keep drivers in their lanes.
"Hopefully with a median we'd be able to add in those areas a guardrail section or something that would prevent them from actually crossing over into on-coming traffic," Hurst said.
There is a new tool in TDOT's arsenal to stop the problem. LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, is a brand new technology to the state.
A laser bounces signals off everything around it. All those signal points are plotted together to digitally represent every curve, hill, bridge or even sign without ever stopping traffic.
TDOT will use the state-of-the-art data to figure out where they should make improvements, hoping this new technology offers a new piece to solving a puzzle they've never seen before.
"You have all different types of crashes. All different times of years and they're random. They're not in one place," Hurst said.
Whatever those upgrades are, from new guardrails to other barriers, Rypkowski hopes they stop this from happening again.
"It's a matter of when. It's not if, it's a matter of when," Rypkowski said.
TDOT crews are collecting data right now, and will be analyzing it in the next few months. Drivers could see improvements along 440 later this year.