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Court Ruling Has DOT Defending Its Progress Installing Median Barriers

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RALEIGH, N.C. — According to the state court of appeals, the North Carolina Department of Transportation could be negligent for failing to install guardrails at a deadly accident scene.

A family sued the DOT after a 1997 Rowan County crash. Their daughter died when the car she was riding in crossed the Interstate 85 median and hit a tractor-trailer.

Years earlier, a DOT study had recommended installing median barriers there.

Despite the court's ruling, engineers for the DOT argue that their efforts to install median barriers lead the nation. They estimate the program has saved more than 80 lives in the past six years.

Nevertheless, cross median crashes can be deadly, including on I-540 in Raleigh.

In May of 2001, four teenagers died when their speeding car lost control, crossed the I-540 median and hit an oncoming van.

There were no median barriers on that stretch of road.

In June of 2003, there was a

fatal cross-median crash on I-40 in Garner.

Again, no barriers.

Engineer Kevin Lacy said the DOT has done enough to keep drivers safe in that regard. He said the state's guardrail guidelines go above and beyond national standards.

The goal is to place some sort of barrier in every state road median that is 70 feet or less. Despite the DOT studies that identify potentially dangerous highways, it is not easy finding money to make them safer.

"You're asking someone to spend scarce public resources," Lacy said.

In fact, since 1998, the DOT has spent $120 million installing more than 800 miles of barriers. That came too late for the rainy night in Rowan County when a car slid unimpeded across the median into a tractor trailer.

"The North Carolina DOT stepped up to the plate," Lacy said, "made the commitment, and we have saved many, many lives based on that commitment."

There are key differences between the Rowan County case and the deadly crash on 540. The stretch of highway where the accident on 540 occurred had not specifically been identified as dangerous.

Victims' family members and attorneys told WRAL on Wednesday that the drivers in the 540 crash were ultimately to blame because they were racing at more than 100 miles an hour -- and a guardrail probably would not have stopped them.


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