After four children died along a stretch of Interstate 85 in Jackson County last July in a head-on collision, state transportation officials pushed a safety initiative delayed by budgetary restraints back to the forefront.
On Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Transportation announced plans to erect 33 miles of steel cable barrier along the grassy medians of Interstate 985 in Hall and Gwinnett counties and Ga. 400 in Forsyth County. Already some 90 miles of the high-tension cable barriers have been installed since last year, when officials began a major push for the safety improvements.
David Spear, a DOT spokesman, acknowledged that the Jackson County accident, in which a car crossed over into oncoming traffic, contributed to that push.
"Any incident like that, particularly where children lost their lives, certainly gives a higher degree of impetus," Spear said.
The portion of I-85 where the crash occurred, near mile marker 139, has yet to see the improvements. But plans call for all of the interstate to eventually have cables guarding the medians up to the South Carolina line.
In Hall and Gwinnett, the median barrier will run 22 miles along Interstate 985 from I-85 to U.S. 129. Forsyth County will see 13 miles of cable strung along the median on Ga. 400 between McFarland Parkway and Keith Bridge Road.
The total price tag for the two projects is a little more than $6 million. The work is slated to begin in the spring and be finished by the fall, officials said.
State DOT Chairman Stan Evans said in a statement he was both "delighted and relieved" to announce the projects.
"Anytime there is an open, grassed center median on a freeway, there is a distinct risk of vehicles leaving their side of the road and striking oncoming vehicles," Evans said. "We have seen the tragic consequences of these accidents too often in Georgia. I-985 and Ga. 400 desperately need these improvements."
The DOT initially planned for the improvements in fiscal year 2006, but put off the work amid a $445 million funding shortfall.
Spear said the barriers operate under a "rubber band principle," preventing cars that run into them from sustaining the kind of damage a concrete retaining wall would create, while preventing a potentially catastrophic crossover into oncoming traffic.
"It’s not a cure-all, and it’s not going to prevent every vehicle from straying across, but it will certainly help," Spear said.
Spear said there have been at least four incidents along stretches of I-85 in Hart and Franklin counties where the barriers were struck by cars.
"Each time they held firm," he said.
The barriers have proven successful in other states.
In Washington, annual cross-median fatal crashes declined from 3 to 0.33 fatalities per 100 million miles of vehicle travel, according to a report by the University of California-Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies.
Gordy Wright, a spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol, said the barriers are welcomed by state troopers, who are seeing more and more median crossover accidents as traffic volumes, and speeds, increase.
"Anything to keep vehicles from crossing over to the other direction of traffic is a tremendous safety enhancement," Wright said.