LOGANSPORT – Gene and Cathy Knight hung upside down inside their Ford Escape, their seat belts keeping them from dropping onto the shattered glass inside their SUV.
Just seconds before, the Knights had been T-boned by a truck that drove through a stop sign at the intersection of Burlington Avenue while trying to get onto the on-ramp to U.S. 35.
“My husband didn’t scream, but I did. I said, ‘Oh, my God, we’re hit.’ The car was upside down. Then it got so quiet. It was like you could hear a pin drop.”
“I screamed,” Cathy Knight said. “My husband didn’t scream, but I did. I said, ‘Oh, my God, we’re hit.’ The car was upside down. Then it got so quiet. It was like you could hear a pin drop.”
Gene Knight was able to get out of the vehicle, but emergency responders had to tear open the SUV to remove Cathy, whose foot was stuck in the crushed metal.
The two survived the crash, but Cathy Knight sustained a minor concussion, a broken clavicle, hematoma and severe bruising.
The Knights weren’t the first people to get hit at the intersection along the Hoosier Heartland Highway, located just south of Logansport. And they wouldn’t be the last.
The new intersection opened in October 2013 as part of a $415 million project by the Indiana Department of Transportation to reduce congestion and improve the ease of travel between Lafayette and Fort Wayne.
It’s an interchange where four major roads converge. The intersection navigates drivers to U.S. 35, U.S. 24, Indiana 25 and Indiana 29.
The Hoosier Heartland Highway brought a massive upgrade to the road, which transformed Indiana 25 from a windy, two-lane road to a limited-access, four-lane highway.
But it didn’t take long after it opened for people to realize there was something seriously wrong about the interchange south of Logansport.
A DANGEROUS AREA
One person was injured in this crash at the Hoosier Heartland intersection on Aug. 31, 2015. Pharos-Tribune.
Local law enforcement agencies were the first to notice the intersection was confusing drivers and creating a dangerous area that was ripe for accidents.
Cass County Sheriff’s Department Maj. Jill Rife said she realized something was wrong from the day it opened.
“Initially when it opened, people weren’t prepared for what was there,” she said. “It wasn’t marked well enough.”
“Initially when it opened, people weren’t prepared for what was there. It wasn’t marked well enough.”
That was proved over the next three months after 11 two-vehicle crashes occurred at or near the intersection, leaving seven people injured, according to a report completed by Appriss, a company that processes crash reports for the state.
Five of those accidents happened within a couple of weeks after the intersection opened.
Rife said the area quickly became the most dangerous interchange in the county for drivers. According to the crash report, 71 two-vehicle accidents have happened at or near the interchange since it opened, which is a shockingly high number, she said.
According to numbers provided by INDOT, 53 crashes have occurred specifically at the four road intersections at the interchange.
Two of those crashes resulted in fatalities. The most recent death was caused by an accident that occurred this month.
“It’s a hotspot for accidents,” she said. “Ever since it’s opened, it’s been the worst intersection.”
That’s because the interchange is counterintuitive to what drivers expect, Rife said.
According to INDOT, the intersection is a called a split-diamond interchange, which is probably Indiana’s most common interchange design.
In Logansport, that diamond is split between two crossroads instead of one, which, INDOT said, was done to provide access between the Hoosier Heartland Highway and both U.S. 24/35 and Indiana 25, which is also called Burlington Avenue within city limits.
The problem, though, is that when drivers get on the roads they believe are the on-ramps to the Hoosier Heartland Highway, they’re not actually on the on-ramps, Rife said.
Instead, they quickly come up to a stop sign for the crossroads, which are four-lane highways that don’t have to yield to traffic.
Since drivers think they’re on an on-ramp, they don’t expect to stop. They expect to merge onto the highway. Many blow through the stop sign and cross into oncoming traffic at the intersections.
That’s what happened when the Knights were T-boned at the interchange in July 2014.
Cathy Knight said the driver of the truck told deputies he didn’t see the stop sign and drove through it.
“I understand that,” she said. “You come up that ramp and you don’t know you’re supposed to stop.”
“You come up that ramp and you don’t know you’re supposed to stop.”
It’s something Knight said she sees happen all the time. She and her husband live just south of Logansport and drive through the intersection a handful of times a week to go into town.
Even before their accident, Knight said, she knew the interchange was dangerous. She had witnessed cars driving through the stop sign and shooting out into oncoming traffic before.
That’s why Knight and her husband always made sure to slow down at the intersection and keep a sharp look out for vehicles crossing over onto the on-ramps.
“We always thought we were so good about looking,” she said. “You always think you look, but then there was the truck hitting us. It happened so fast.”
This van was pushed to the side of the road due to the collision shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2, at the Tyson exchange of the Hoosier Heartland Corridor. Pharos-Tribune.
A DESIGN FLAW?
The Knights ended up filing a tort claim against the state. The argument was that INDOT “negligently designed, constructed and/or maintained the roadway” where their accident occurred.
Matthew Barrett, an attorney in Logansport who represented the Knights, said INDOT denied the claim. Now, he said, he’s investigating the intersection for a potential lawsuit against the department.
"It’s undeniable that there is a flaw in that design."
“Obviously there is design defect there,” he said. “Clearly there is … It’s undeniable that there is a flaw in that design, and it’s perplexing that [INDOT] isn’t acknowledging that. They’re putting everyone’s lives at risk. It’s a really dangerous area.”
State Sen. Randy Head, who represents all of Cass and Miami counties, agreed there’s something very perplexing about the intersection.
“It’s confusing,” he said. “The number of accidents shows that drivers are confused by the configuration. It’s counterintuitive.”
Jeremy Chapman, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology who specializes in transportation systems, said INDOT’s use of a split-diamond design at the interchange is a very unique, out-of-the-ordinary ramp system to use at the Hoosier Heartland intersection.
That’s because most split-diamond interchanges are used in urban areas and are paired with one-way streets, not four-lane highways like the one in Logansport.
Chapman said the design is often used in cities where there isn’t much space to build a larger interchange.
In Logansport, the intersection is surrounded by a rural environment without much space constraints. He said that could have allowed for a design that wouldn’t require traffic on U.S. 35/U.S. 24 to take an exit in order to remain on the highway.
In fact, the split-diamond interchange along the Hoosier Heartland Highway is the only one he knows of in the state that’s located in a rural area, he said.
Even so, that doesn’t mean the intersection has a design flaw.
According to engineering standards set by the Standard Specifications for Public Works Construction book, which is the accepted source for public works specifications for hundreds of counties, cities and public works agencies across the country, the Logansport interchange is a valid use of the split-diamond design, Chapman said.
“It’s not a common usage. In my estimation, it’s pretty unique,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Chapman said if he had designed the road, he would have not allowed access to Burlington Avenue/Indiana 25 from the highway. Instead, he would have connected that road to the highway through another means.
“I’m not saying this intersection is done wrong, but other people could have come up with other designs that would work,” he said. “It comes down to a matter of differing opinions. There are a lot of design considerations. It’s easy to point to the fact that there is a problem, but identifying what could have been different is hard to do.”
BEEFING UP SAFETY
Rumble strips were just one of the improvements the Indiana State Department of Transportation installed at the Hoosier Heartland Highway interchange. J. Kyle Keener | Pharos-Tribune
The confusion created by the intersection hasn’t been lost on INDOT.
Local and state officials such as Cass County Sheriff Richard Pryor and Sen. Head have expressed their concern about the area multiple times to the department.
In July 2014, Head requested INDOT conduct a study of the interchange to determine if it was unsafe.
INDOT responded later that year by making improvements to the interchange to alert drivers coming off the Hoosier Heartland of impending stop signs. Those improvements included adding more signage, placing flashing red lights on the stop signs and installing rumble strips.
The measures helped, but they didn’t stop all the accidents.
According to the crash report provided by Appriss, 30 more two-vehicle crashes occurred at or near the interchange from January 2015 to today. One of those crashes resulted in a fatality.
“They’ve made changes for the good, but, unfortunately, we still deal with crashes,” said Sheriff's Maj. Rife. “This month alone, someone got killed at the intersection.”
Since initiating its study in 2014, INDOT has monitored the interchange for crashes and other traffic statistics to determine if additional safety measures are needed.
And they are, said Doug Moats, the media relations director for INDOT’s northwest district, which includes Cass County.
Moats said INDOT now plans to install more safety improvements by adding overhead flashers at the northwest and southeast intersections of the interchange to alert traffic coming off the Hoosier Heartland of the upcoming stop as they crest an incline on either ramp.
Concrete islands will be added to tighten up the intersection and channel traffic coming off the highway, he said, which will allow stop signs to be moved closer to traffic to increase their visibility.
Overhead intersection lighting will also be provided at all four intersections.
Moats said the project was let this month and the safety measures should be installed this spring.
"Safety is the number-one priority for INDOT, which is why we partnered with local leaders to improve this interchange.”
“INDOT has been in contact with local and state officials in the area,” he said in an email. “We’ve heard their concerns and acted on them. Safety is the number-one priority for INDOT, which is why we partnered with local leaders to improve this interchange.”
Assistant professor Chapman said there are other measures INDOT could consider to make the interchange safer, including installing traffic lights or removing the stop signs and putting in roundabouts at the intersections.
He said it appears the department is installing the least expensive measures first to bring the number of crashes down, and that’s proper protocol when making upgrades to a transportation system.
“If you can spend $5,000 to get rid of the problem, there’s no reason you should spend $100,000,” Chapman said.
But Cathy Knight said the new safety measure can’t come soon enough.
She said she and her husband have just started using the intersection again to get into Logansport. After their crash in 2014, they took a detour through the country to get into town just to avoid the area.
Knight said she still suffers from bruising from the crash, which serves as a constant reminder of the harrowing experience that easily could have left her dead.
And even today, she still sees drivers running the stop signs at the intersection.
“It makes you wonder who designed it,” she said. “I just don’t understand their reasoning on it. It’s still dangerous, and I just hope nobody else gets hurt there. Once it happens to you, you never can get it out of your mind.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, email@example.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.