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FHP: Crashes increase in Duval County construction zones

Transportation officials say distractions contribute to crash increases

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A chain-reaction crash Monday morning in a construction zone on Interstate 295 at San Jose Boulevard is part of a trend of increased crashes in highway construction zones, according to numbers from the Florida Highway Patrol.

The five-vehicle crash, which caused major backup on the interstate, began when cars in the southbound left lane stopped suddenly and a Ford Expedition, driven by 45-year-old April Ricks, was unable to stop. Ricks' SUV hit the back of a Toyota Tundra, which hit the back of a Ford F-150, which hit the back of a Mazda 6.

Ricks' SUV then veered into the center lane and was hit from behind by a Nissan Rogue.

Ricks was taken to Baptist South with serious injuries.

Crashes in Duval County construction zones have increased over the last year.

"You really need to slow down prior to getting to that construction zone for your own safety," said Gil Smith, News4Jax crime and safety analyst.

According to FHP, wrecks along the beltway increased more than 30 percent in the first half of 2016 compared to the previous year. And between May and September, crashes increased compared to the same time last year along I-295 (30 percent), I-95 (19 percent) and I-10 (19 percent).

The areas near San Jose Boulevard and J. Turner Butler Boulevard, two hot spots for construction on I-295, have seen noticeable increases.

Within a mile of San Jose, 40 more crashes have been reported since the same time last year, and within a mile of JTB, 140 more crashes have been reported, according to  Florida's Integrated Report Exchange System.

Crashes have also increased along I-95 and I-10, where road work is continuing.

"It breaks my heart when I see the reports coming in from the transportation center,” Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Ron Tittle said.

But who's to blame?

"It's not the construction zone that's causing the crashes,” Tittle said.

FDOT said several factors contribute to crashes in construction zones, including the increasing number of drivers on roads, unfamiliarity with road patterns and distractions.

"I can look over and see a lot of people on their cellphones,” driver Brooke Bondoronek said. “When there's big signs with arrows, I don't think they're paying attention."

"At the last minute, people are trying to change over and switch lanes, so I'm not surprised about crashes at all,” driver Deandre Martin said.

Some drivers admit to the problems.

“I'm definitely distracted, but the roads don't help,” Martin said.

"Sometimes I go over the speed limit, I'm not going to lie,” Bondoronek said.

"Sometimes the signs are really confusing, and you don't know where you're supposed to go,” driver Auriana Kibbe said.

News4Jax took a radar detector out Monday to a safe area off I-95 at JTB near a construction zone with a speed limit of 45 mph to find out how fast drivers were traveling despite signs reading "slow down."

The radar detector recorded drivers traveling at speeds near 60 mph coming out of the construction zone and over 50 mph for traffic entering the freeway.

"I'm not surprised at all. In fact I talked to JSO (Jacksonville Sheriff's Office) traffic officers and sometimes they don't notice any slowdown in the traffic. They tend to go whatever the posted speed limit is until they get right up on it and notice if it's a zigzag. So you have to slow down," Smith said.

The Florida Department of Transportation is constantly looking for new ways to help curb crashes by using social media, signage and lights, but doing too much will cause even more distractions, so drivers need to do their part as well, officials said.

"You have to realize also that you have a lot of people, a very high number of people on 95 who are going to Disney World, South Florida, just traveling different places in Florida and may not be familiar with traffic patterns or the changes in the traffic patterns," Smith said.

Tittle said drivers need to be proactive and check out their routes before they head out for any changes due to construction, follow the posted signs and speed limits and avoid distractions so they can fully concentrate on the road. 

“Driver responsibility, that's what it boils down to,” Tittle said.

Smith agreed, saying drivers don't always take the necessary precautions. He also added it's important to keep in mind who's driving in other lanes. 

"Nationwide, over the past five years, there have been over 4,000 traffic fatalities in construction zones and over 200,000 injuries, and most of those are rear-end collisions. So that's why it's very important to slow down and maintain that safe distance from the car in front of you," Smith said.

When drivers find themselves in stop-and-go traffic, they need to make sure they can see the tires of the vehicle in front of them, because that's a good measure of having a safe stopping distance, according to Smith.

About the Authors:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.