Local News

Engineers To Examine Guardrails in Fiery I-40 Accident

Posted October 14, 1998

— Transportation engineers will examine the scene this morning of a fiery accident that backed up traffic on I-40 for hours Thursday afternoon. The engineers will try to figure out why the cable guardrail failed.

Witnesses say a car traveling east crossed the median into westbound traffic near Highway 54 around noon.

The car collided with another car and a tractor trailer, which then caught fire. Several of the tractor trailer's tanks exploded along the median.

Several people were taken to the hospital. Fortunately, no one was killed in the accident, but the guardrail on I-40 did not stop Rebecca Butler of Efland from crossing the median in her 1992 Olds Sierra.

The Sierra ducked right under the cable guardrail installed to prevent accidents like this one.

The accident has some wondering why North Carolina is considering spending millions of dollars on more cable guardrails.

"These [guardrails] right here usually contain the cars in the median, but this was a freak accident," Durham police officer "Dock" Culver said.

"It is an extremely rare event," D.O.T. Safety Engineer Kevin Lacy said. "Personally, I do not know of another event of this sort in North Carolina."

Despite the fiery crash, Lacy still defends the cables as cost effective protection that has saved dozens of lives and prevented perhaps hundreds of head-on collisions.

"It's possible that a more rigid guardrail would prevent a vehicle from riding under, but it is also possible that a more rigid guardrail would have caused more damage and more physical harm to the occupants of the vehicle," Lacy said.

In fact, the cable guardrail did stop the tractor trailer, and may have saved the driver's life.

Jeff Ryan explains. "Once I got it stopped, and basically the guard rail stopped me, I looked out the mirror and saw smoke. By the time I opened the door, I saw flames coming between the cab and the trailer, and it's time to leave."

Before the state installed cable guardrails, I-40 was considered the deadliest highway in the entire state, primarily because of cross median crashes. Since that time, the cables have yielded no fatal cross median accidents. In fact, even in Thursday's crash, the cables helped contain a tractor trailer and a car.

"A cable guard out there in many cases has performed very well," Lacy said. "You can't bat 1000 every time." ,Julie Moos,Jason Darwin


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