Traffic problems sometimes happen in chronological clumps. There will be a string of days with multiple rollover wrecks or a drive time where multiple vehicles lose different kind of debris in the road. Three different livestock truck crashes took place in Metro Atlanta in a five-month period, as you may recall. But these repetitive occurrences are often coincidental and not caused by some underlying common denominator. But one breakout of wrecks recently could be different.
I-285/eastbound and westbound between Flat Shoals Parkway (exit 48) and I-20 (exit 46) in DeKalb has seen several bad wrecks recently. They have been epic, with several multi-car, multi-tractor trailer, multi-injury melees that each have blocked several lanes and caused severe jams. Triple Team Traffic’s morning WSB Skycopter anchor, Smilin’ Mark McKay, saw the first in this pattern on “Getaway” Wednesday morning, November 21st. A huge wreck shut down I-285/westbound just before Flat Shoals.
"It was carnage in the way of vehicles and debris all over the place,” McKay explained on the latest WSB Traffic Podcast. "The insight that we had - it started as a medical emergency and we just went over there to make sure that everything was clear.” It had cleared, but the distraction likely caused the bigger problem. “What I noticed, was a firetruck on the scene of the multi-vehicle crash was facing the wrong direction." McKay, who saw this unfold from the WSB Skycopter, continued, "Imagine what they heard behind them, when everything started screeching and crashing." The interstate was shut down from 8 a.m. until at least 10 and caused massive delays on both I-285 and I-20 in the area.
On the morning of Black Friday, just two days later, I flew over another crash at the exact same location. This one had about seven vehicles and shut down all but the right shoulder. Fortunately, volume was light, so the delays were far less.
Then this past week saw two more big wrecks in the opposite direction. At about 2:45 p.m. Monday, a crash shut down all of I-285/eastbound east of Flat Shoals.
Nasty wreck with 4 tractor-trailers and 2 cars in Dekalb - 285 nb before I-20. Currently all lanes being diverted off 285 to Flat Shoals. Take a left on Flat Shoals toward I-20. Take I-20 East back to 285. pic.twitter.com/pTMM55JapB— Jason Durden (@JasonDurdenWSB) November 26, 2018
Jason Durden was over it first in Newschopper 2 and he saw two tractor trailers wedged against the left side wall and multiple vehicles crushed in front of a car carrier on the right side of the road. I flew in the WSB Skycopter up over the severe backups that ended up jamming I-75 both ways in Clayton County and the onlooker delays on I-285/westbound ended up jamming I-20 both ways in DeKalb. The road did not fully open for three hours.
Then on Wednesday, I flew over another mix of cars and a tractor trailer I-285/eastbound, just a little bit ahead of the previous one. That blocked two right lanes for about two hours and jammed traffic before I-675.
This got McKay and me thinking about what the cause for all this could be. This area has been a continuous work zone for a few years, as crews are rebuilding the Flat Shoals bridge. But the lane shifts on I-285 are gone and the interstate has been repaved. In fact, the area is even smoother now than a few months ago.
I reached out to GDOT’s Natalie Dale for an explanation. She shared crash data from the last five years for that interchange and it showed that, year to date, there were 70 less crashes here than in 2017. This is probably due to this zone being much harder to drive a year ago when there was more construction.
Commuters on social media agree that it is now easier to drive. Two truckers that drive here often tell me that the biggest problem is people driving too fast and too close around their big rigs. When cars weave quickly in and out of traffic, trucks cannot react evasively quickly and they can wreck or turn over.
This stretch of I-285 often runs quicker than, say, the north side Perimeter. But many trucks use it, as there are many trucking depots on Moreland Avenue and Jonesboro Road and because trucks have to divert onto I-285 to connect with I-20, or vice-versa. Combine these factors and the recipe makes these big, chain reaction-wrecks more likely.
Another factor these last two weeks could be the increase in drivers from out of town traveling through Metro Atlanta for the holidays. Unfamiliar drivers on I-285/westbound come around a sharp curve and immediately up to the Flat Shoals ramp. I-285/eastbound motorists may run up on sudden right lane delays ramping to I-20. This can cause sudden lane changes and trigger wrecks. And keep in mind that many truckers are from out of town. One local rig driver told me that the angle of the lanes almost pulls his wheel in one direction, so he has to work harder to keep his ride straight.
The only change in conditions the last two weeks on I-285 near Flat Shoals has been the addition of out-of-town drivers. Maybe this string of melees is a coincidence, mixed with some unfamiliarity. The Thanksgiving crash count the past three years in the area was similar. Really, there is no clear causation for this preponderance of wrecks. Captain Herb Emory might have said that someone sprinkled some voodoo dust down there. Regardless, everyone should exercise some extra caution on I-285 in both directions near Flat Shoals in DeKalb and should always drive severe care around tractor trailers. And truck drivers should do the same.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95-5 FM and AM-750 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@coxinc.com.