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Illinois police step up patrols after fatalities on McKinley and MLK bridges

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2009 - Reacting to the deaths of six people in four separate crashes in a one-month period, the Illinois state police are beefing up patrols on the McKinley and Martin Luther King bridges in hopes of snagging speeders and drunk drivers.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is also planning to add new speed limit signs and reflective markings to both bridges and a rumble strip to the center of the McKinley Bridge to alert motorists using the bridges.

Six people were killed in the four crashes between Nov. 25 and Dec. 24, 2008. Three people died in a crash involving two pick-up trucks on the McKinley Bridge on Nov. 25, and one person was killed on Dec. 6 in a crash involving three pick-up trucks on the same bridge. One person died in each of two crashes on the MLK Bridge in December. One of the crashes involved two pick-up trucks and the other two pick-ups and a semi truck.

So many fatalities in such a short period of time sent up red flags, said Capt. Jerry Culp, District 11 Commander of the Illinois state police. Before the 2008 fatalities, seven fatalities occurred in accidents on the MLK Bridge east of the state line in the past 10 years.

The McKinley Bridge was closed to traffic in 2001 and reopened in 2007. The November fatalities were the first since the bridge reopened. During the last 10 years, no fatal crashes occurred from the state line east on the Poplar Street Bridge, IDOT records show.

"When we started doing our detail (of the 2008 crashes) and found the amount of activity and the speeds, we were kind of shocked," Culp said. "The speeds were much higher than the posted speed limits."

A recent survey of traffic on the MLK bridge traffic showed that the average vehicle was traveling more than 15 miles an hour over the speed limit of 45 miles an hour, Culp said. "We must put a stop to that for the safety of everyone," he added. (The speed limit on the McKinley Bridge is 35 mph.)

A study of the recent crashes also determined that drinking, driving and speeding were major reasons for three of them, said IDOT spokeswoman Paris Ervin. In the fourth crash, speeding was a factor and alcohol was suspected, she said.

Police have already increased patrols on the bridges and have issued tickets to drivers under the influence, Culp said. While the majority of DWI stops occur in the late night or early morning hours, "it's not unheard of to get them 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning or 1 o'clock in the afternoon," he said. "It's all hours, and that's not just that location -- it's everywhere."

IDOT is providing more than $135,000 for additional patrols over the next six months on both bridges. "Motorists can expect the increased patrols to be in place at all hours of the day and every day of the week, but the focus will be during the evening and early morning hours when the most recent crashes occurred," Ervin said.

Both bridges have slight curves in the roadways crossing the river, but bridge design was not a factor in the accidents, Culp said. "It's more driver error than anything else," he said.

The MLK Bridge, formerly known as Veterans Memorial Bridge, links St. Louis and East St. Louis and was built in 1951. The McKinley Bridge, built in 1910, links north St. Louis and Venice, Ill.

Motorists tend to pick up speed entering the McKinley Bridge from the Missouri side after a stoplight at Ninth Street, Culp said. "Somebody coming east, once they get on it, they know they're heading toward an interstate, and they just start picking up speed. It's kind of a straight shot and then it curves."

Motorists will soon see added signage on the bridges and reflective tape on approaches. Six-inch red borders on new ultra-high intensity reflective speed limit signs will help increase motorists' speed awareness. Both bridges will also have speed reduction pavement markings to make motorists more aware of their speed.

Crews will install a milled centerline rumble strip on the McKinley Bridge to help decrease the number of crossover crashes, Ervin said. On the MLK, they will install new long-life, highly reflective pavement tape, including speed-reducing pavement markings on approaches and the structure itself. The improvements, slated to be completed in the summer, will cost an estimated $350,000.

"IDOT's No. 1 priority is safety and we vow to do our part to help prevent any future fatalities and are happy to work with Illinois State Police to provide a solution to the problem before it gets worse," Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) District 8 Deputy Director Mary Lamie said.

Statistics on crashes on the bridges west of the state line and their causes are not readily available, Erica S. Van Ross, director of public information for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, said. Unlike Illinois where the state police and the highway department track crashes on the eastern half of the bridges, the St. Louis Police Department tracks them on the Missouri side of the bridges.

Van Ross said she recalls a November 2008 crash on the Missouri side of one of the bridges when a driver crossed the centerline killing himself and two men in the car he hit.

Since Illinois is charged with maintaining the MLK and McKinley bridges, the physical changes will be made along the entire length of the bridges, she said.

Illinois officials also hope to complete a second part of the bridge evaluation over the summer that will allow more time for IDOT to evaluate crash history, impacts to the truss bridges and the existing transportation system.

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer in St. Louis..

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