Veteran Trucker Calls I-95 ’Terrible’

One man who knows the road well tells why a $100 billion overhaul of I-95 would be money well spent.

📅   Thu September 10, 2015 - Northeast Edition
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The highest volume of accidents statewide occurs along some of the most congested parts of the highway: from Greenwich to Darien, the Norwalk-Westport area, and in Bridgeport and New Haven-East Haven, according to the data.
The highest volume of accidents statewide occurs along some of the most congested parts of the highway: from Greenwich to Darien, the Norwalk-Westport area, and in Bridgeport and New Haven-East Haven, according to the data.

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) - A little after 7 a.m. on a gray Wednesday in March, the red cab of the L.R. Hawthorne & Son 18-wheeler chugs away from a rest stop near Exit 13 on the northbound side of Interstate 95.

”Well, I’m L.R. Hawthorne and my father’s the son,’ says Lee Hawthorne, 60, of Enfield. He’s named after his grandfather, who founded the trucking company.

A white-bearded, bespectacled man with a husky voice, Hawthorne has lived the better part of his life on the road, at one point overseeing 15 trucks out of two locations for the family trucking company. Semi-retired now, he spends a week or more at a time shuttling cargo along highways from Florida to Maine and as far west as California, Washington and Vancouver. He says when he goes home it’s only at the request of his wife, Joanne, who is retired and lives full-time in Florida.

”We’ve been doing this at minimum three generations - you could argue as many as four,’ Hawthorne says over the alternating rumbling and humming of the motor. He drives with his left hand and uses his right to shift gears. The handle of a travel mug filled with coffee is tucked between the fingers of his right hand and the worn leather nob of the clutch.

Hawthorne’s great-grandfather had trucks on the family’s farm in Enfield. His father, who could drive three days ”without hardly stopping or sleeping,’ retired 20 years ago. Hawthorne recalls first getting behind the wheel himself at about age 18. He says he’s put 900,000 miles on his Kenworth truck, which he bought used seven or eight years ago.

From the driver’s seat he gets a unique view of the roadway. He sees into passenger cars below and has seen the occupants eating, texting and changing clothes. In winter, he can see over snowbanks that obscure the view for a lower-set vehicle.

The delivery this day is 25,000 pounds of frozen hamburgers and chicken sandwiches Hawthorne picked up Monday in Claremont, N.C. He’s taking the load to a food distributor just north of Hartford. Monday night was spent at a truck stop in Virginia and Tuesday night at the stop in Darien. Both nights, Hawthorne slept on the mattress that dominates the zipper-curtained sleeper compartment tucked behind the seats.

The plan today is to take I-95 from Darien to New Haven, where he’ll turn onto I-91 and drive north to Rocky Hill to drop off the sandwiches. ”You can’t get anywhere in Connecticut without being on 95,’ he says.

Route 1, which runs like a shadow along the interstate, has a handful of bridges too low for Hawthorne’s truck. Some other roads don’t allow trucks.

So 95 it is. And, Hawthorne says, ”95 is terrible.’

”The problem with 95 in Connecticut, it may be three lanes wide but you’re getting into, I’m gonna say, like, Branford - there’s an exit or an entrance every half mile. That really doesn’t give a definition to a limited access highway,’ Hawthorne says.

The consistent crowding of exits and entrances on Connecticut’s stretch of the expressway is not typical in other I-95 states except on sections that bisect cities, he says. An analysis by The Day of data from the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center at the University of Connecticut puts the state at the third-highest on I-95 for exits and entrances - 85 northbound, 83 southbound - about 1.3 miles apart on average.

”You get one car going 45 miles per hour’ - he pauses. Ahead is a sedan moving at that speed. The rubbery dragging and thudding of windshield wipers fills the brief silence.

The congestion can be tricky to maneuver for truckers working with delivery deadlines. ”You have to watch yourself driving because (traffic) is so heavy and there’s so many cars,’ he says.

I-95 is ”past capacity and there’s not much you can do about it,’ he says. Hawthorne says widening the interstate may help, but he’s skeptical. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed widening the highway as part of a 30-year, $100 billion transportation overhaul.

His favorite sections of I-95 are in Maine - ”no cars, no trucks, no nothing.’ The worst parts are metro New York, northern New Jersey and Connecticut’s Gold Coast, he says.

”People tend to be much more aggressive around here - Boston, especially; metro New York. It can be brutal,’ he says. ”My wife says my demeanor in driving changes as soon as I hit the George Washington Bridge.’

He says the section he is driving as he speaks - ”this section right here, going into East Haven’ - is typically the most congested.

From East Haven on, ”it isn’t quite so bad as you head east. There are sections in there that become more prone to accidents, like over near the New London area.

”I’m thinking there’s a bad section on the west side of New London, about where the intersection of 395 intersects with it.’

He’s referring to East Lyme. His sister, who lives in the town, was in an accident there about three years ago - ”went around like a top’ on a patch of ice, he recalls.

The area surrounding Exits 74 and 75 and the entire East Lyme stretch have higher-than-average accident rates, according to The Day’s analysis of information available in the Connecticut Crash Data Repository, a database assembled by the state Transportation Safety Research Center.

Between 2008 and 2013 the average accident rate for the mile-long expanse between Exits 74 and 75 was 1.8 accidents per 1 million vehicles. The rate for Exits 71-72 (Four Mile River Road and Rocky Neck) was 2.1 accidents per 1 million vehicles. The average rate for all I-95 was 1.6 accidents per 1 million vehicles.

The northbound Exit 75 on-ramp from Boston Post Road dumps traffic into the right lane of a two-lane section only a quarter of a mile before the interstate splits to allow merging onto 395 on the left.

On Nov. 2, 2007, the driver of a tanker truck traveling north on I-95 lost control near Exit 75 and careened into southbound traffic. The ensuing crash killed three people, injured several others and closed the highway for hours.

DOT installed concrete barriers between the north- and southbound sections in 2008 to prevent vehicles from crossing over the median into incoming traffic, a move DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said was planned prior to the accident. DOT also installed extra signage to indicate the speed limit and warn of merging traffic.

The highest volume of accidents statewide occurs along some of the most congested parts of the highway: from Greenwich to Darien, the Norwalk-Westport area, and in Bridgeport and New Haven-East Haven, according to the data.

Hawthorne notices the accident-prone areas at Exit 16 in East Norwalk, where he says cars in the left lane will sometimes run diagonally across to the right; the joining of Interstates 91 and 95 at the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge over the Quinnipiac River in New Haven, known as the Q Bridge; and the Route 1 exit/entrance in West Haven where ”there’s a lane that disappears, kind of screws things up.’

Milepost 16 in Norwalk, the approximate location of Exit 16, is year after year the I-95 location with the highest number of accidents, according to the crash data repository.

Time of day is a factor. A mile-long stretch in Old Lyme that includes Exits 71 and 72 had 254 accidents occur under dark conditions (without overhead lights) between 1995 and 2013, according to the crash data repository - the highest number of such accidents of any unlighted mile-long section.

An unlit mile-long stretch just north of Exit 91 in Stonington had 182 accidents at night between 1995 and 2013, the next highest number of any unlighted mile.

Hawthorne isn’t particularly worried about lighting. He thinks light from headlights is enough to show drivers the way. What does worry him are narrow shoulders and an absence of shoulders in many places.

Plans for widening I-95 are too preliminary for DOT to know whether adding shoulder room will be part of construction, according to DOT Commissioner James Redeker.

At the end of the I-95 stretch of the trip, the truck pulls into the empty parking lot of the Ikea furniture store in New Haven. The time is about 8:30 a.m. - ahead of schedule for Hawthorne. The Ikea café, which opens before the retail departments, hasn’t even opened to serve Swedish meatballs.