I-85/northbound was a hot mess last Wednesday night - quite literally. Just before 6 p.m., a tractor trailer carrying dog food erupted in flames after striking two cars on the I-85/nb exit ramp to Highway 211 (Exit 126) in Barrow County. The big rig also struck and heavily damaged the overhead sign. A helicopter ambulance airlifted the truck driver to Grady Memorial Hospital in Downtown Atlanta and a hazmat crew had to search for and eventually deem the scene clear of any dangerous spills. This shut all lanes on this side of I-85 down for nearly five hours, trapping hundreds of motorists leaving northern Gwinnett County.
We pointed the WSB Skycopter in the direction of the melee as soon as we heard of the fire. WSB Triple Team Traffic’s Mike Shields used our traffic Jam Cam to immediately find the freeway closed and a large conflagration. Our Mark McKay started fielding calls about the demolished trucks. We soon arrived overhead and watched crews battle the flames on the trailer of the truck, as they continued to re-ignite.
🚨 RED ALERT Braselton: I-85/nb is shut down before Hwy 211 (Exit 126) big rig crash and fire cleanup. Jammed n of Hamilton Mill. Use Hwy 124. Some I-85/sb onlooker delays, too. #ATLtraffic @wsbradio @wsbtraffic @ajcwsbtraffic @wsbtv pic.twitter.com/b57oHTvFx1— 🔥Fireball Turnbull 🚁 (@DougTurnbull) January 11, 2023
We issued a WSB Traffic RED ALERT, a moniker we use for entire freeway-shut downs.
Traffic was already slow back to Hamilton Mill (Exit 120) when we left the closure at around 6:15 p.m. The jams just compounded as this cleanup continued into the night. Angry motorists started tweeting at our @ajcwsbtraffic Twitter account, as the hours-stuck grew. They wondered why they had not been forced off at Hamilton Mill or why law enforcement had not begun turning traffic around and down the interstate the wrong way back onto Hamilton Mill.
I first reached out to Gwinnett PD, since any traffic diversions would have happened in their county; the crash was technically in Barrow County. Gwinnett PD referred me to the Georgia State Patrol, who handled the scene. When faced with the same question about trapped traffic, GSP said that they handled the crash and GDOT was supposed to handle any diversions.
So, a crash in Barrow County causes major delays into Gwinnett. The state handled the crash scene but said another state department, which also assisted at the scene, was supposed to handle traffic control.
A circle of index fingers and protocols complements a long, straight line of furious drivers idling in stopped cars. Did a lack of planning or too much bureaucratic, jurisdictional vapor lock cause the gridlock? Or did a series of very unfortunate events beget this traffic disaster? Short answer: yes.
GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said that the combination of critical injuries, sign damage, and a potential chemical spill made this incident particularly tough to manage. Since more manpower in the form of HERO units was needed at the scene of the repair, cleanup, and investigation, there were less units available to contra-flow the stuck motorists back to Hamilton Mill Road.
GSP and GDOT both confirmed I-85/northbound traffic eventually was forced onto Gravel Springs Road (Exit 118), preventing even more people from driving into the back of an interminable backup.
All of this said, there should have been a plan to make up for the lack of personnel and free some of that traffic. The state needs to release and enforce a standardized plan for extended traffic closures.This plan should have a framework for how and when first responders should both force off traffic and turn stopped traffic back to the previous exit. The plan should also require the managing agency at a crash to contact surrounding agencies in assisting in traffic control.
Whether this plan starts with GDOT or goes as high as GEMA or the governor, something needs to change in regards to major traffic incidents.
Managing hours-long closures has been done successfully before. The I-85 bridge collapse and the ensuing six week-closure was a beautiful, coordinated marriage of agencies and private industry. Last summer’s I-285 truck-versus-bridge crash saw Dunwoody PD proactively force off traffic early and free up trapped drivers. To the contrary, on the other side of the wall, Sandy Springs PD did not manage the backup that had extended into their city in that case.
In last Wednesday’s mess, Gwinnett PD should have had the foresight to keep their stretches of road moving and jumped into the traffic control fray. GSP or GDOT should have relayed the severity to Gwinnett and asked for more help. Other city and county police departments, such as Lawrenceville, Barrow County, Duluth, and Jackson County could have lent a hand.
The state plan should allow for officers to operate outside of jurisdictions to control traffic.
I-85/northbound in Braselton finally reopened around 11 p.m.
UPDATE: Traffic moving once again, all lanes open. Delays may take a bit to fully dissipate. #ATLtraffic https://t.co/k8zr9tMuaP— AJC WSB Traffic (@ajcwsbtraffic) January 12, 2023
Zach Grizzle in the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center monitored the closure and the extreme backups that ended up lasting another hour or two after crews opened all lanes.
Motorists that blindly drove into the back end of this backup also need to shoulder some of the blame. If they had planned their ride properly, if they had been monitoring traffic conditions and listening for updates on 95.5 WSB then some of them would have avoided the snarl. GDOT did say they changed their messaging signs miles back and many ignored the warnings.
Regardless of the bad luck, the mismanagement, and the lack of preparation, the biggest hardship during the I-85/northbound chaos was for those involved in the crash. As bad as getting stuck in a backup for hours is, crashing and getting flown to a hospital is far worse. Prayers go up for that driver and any of the others injured.
Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.
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