At around 5 a.m. on March 5, 2011, five motorists were standing on the emergency shoulder of the Interstate 95 express lanes after a series of accidents.
"Meanwhile, a drunk driver entered the toll lanes. Speeding. Lost control," says attorney Edward Blumberg. "And then struck all five people... and hit them head on."
Four people died on the scene, the fifth died at Jackson Memorial Hospital, according to police records.
It was the most deadly I-95 accident in Miami-Dade County for at least the last decade, according to an analysis of crash reports by WLRN, Florida International University professor Jeffrey Onsted and The New Tropic.
Our analysis looked at crash data provided by the Florida Department of Transportation for 2005 through 2012, the most recent years available. WLRN then asked the Florida Highway Patrol for fatal I-95 accidents that occurred in 2013 and 2014. Of the thousands of I-95 accidents contained in that collection, none claimed more lives than the March 5, 2011 crash.
The following map shows serious I-95 accidents from FDOT's 2005-2012 data set. (Credit: Map was made by The New Tropic. Jeffrey Onsted pulled I-95 crashes from the larger set of Miami-Dade County crashes.)
The March 5, 2011 accident speaks to the safety concerns many have about the six-year-old I-95 express lanes.
"When there’s a bad design, an unsafe design, an unsafe follow up, it contributes to the tragedies that occur," says attorney Edward Blumberg. He's representing the parents of one of the victims and says he doesn't want to downplay the role of the driver who, according to police, was drunk when he hit and killed five with his mom's Honda Accord. But in Blumberg's mind, there's no question the express lanes contributed to the death of those five people.
“If there is an emergency there’s no place for that driver or car to find safe haven,” Blumberg says.
In order to implement the 95 Express system, the Florida Department of Transportation added a new lane to that stretch of I-95 in Miami-Dade County. Existing lanes were narrowed, plastic delineator poles were installed and the inside shoulder was shrunk by about 40 percent.
Most of the shoulder in the express lanes is now 7 feet, 11 inches -- a little more narrow than a standard parking spot.
A crash report from the Florida Highway Patrol shows that, on the morning of March 5th, a vehicle had been abandoned on the express lane shoulder and was sticking out into the express lanes. The driver of the Accord lost control when he swerved around the abandoned car.
Blumberg argues that, with a wider shoulder, that abandoned vehicle would likely not have been blocking the express lanes.
Omar Meitin, who oversees 95 Express for FDOT, says the loss of life in that accident is terrible but that it could have happened with a 15-foot shoulder.
“How do you keep a drunk driver from getting behind the wheel of the car? Should it have been the owner of the bar who maybe notified police that this person was under the influence and was about to get into a car?" Meitin asks. "Or is it the passenger in the car who says: Hey, give me your keys, you shouldn’t drive.”
Attorney Edward Blumberg argued, in a lawsuit, that FDOT should have had a way to keep the drunk driver out of the express lanes once there was an accident. Blumberg, a partner at Deutsch & Blumberg, says FDOT settled that suit.
(Below, a chart by The New Tropic and data scientist Christopher Peter, looking at what time of the day fatal accidents occurred from 2005-2012. Data is for all lanes of I-95 along a 13-mile stretch of containing the express lane system as well as express lane entrance and exit points.)
The Florida Highway Patrol has been vocal in its opposition to the shrunken shoulder in the I-95 express lanes. They say it makes traffic stops unsafe and, thus, enforcement difficult.
“[Troopers] don’t like I-95, they don't like stopping people on 95 because it's very fast and there's nowhere to stop people," says Master Trooper William Smith, who is also head of the Florida Highway Patrol chapter of the state police union. "So has enforcement gone down on 95? Yes.”
When asked about the Florida Department of Transportation's response to the March 5th accident, how it could have happened somewhere with a wider shoulder, Smith says, "Did they said that?... But still, you didn’t provide the people that had been involved in the crash significant area to get off the roadway because of your express lanes.”
THE PROBLEM WITH LANE-DIVING
Smith is one of the troopers who works as a "hire back" in the 95 Express lanes. FDOT pays Smith overtime to do dedicated express lanes patrol. He spends hours each week patrolling the lanes, observing driver behavior.
“I tell all my friends and my family and my girlfriend, I say: Don’t ride next to the delineators if you’re in the express lane,” says Smith.
The other major safety concern about 95 Express is drivers cutting through the plastic poles that separate off the express lanes from the regular lanes. This is known as "lane-diving."
Last year, during 95 Express shifts, state troopers like Smith made more than 150 arrests for lane-diving, according to FDOT statistics.
And it is dangerous.
Our analysis of FHP crash reports found at least four people have died as a result of lane-diving accidents.
In 2011, a driver jumped out of the express lanes trying to get to the exit at Northwest 125th Street, hitting a pickup truck in the general purpose lanes, the regular lanes. The driver of the truck died on the scene.
In 2014, just south of Northwest 62nd Street, a Honda Accord tried to jump into the express lanes and was hit by a Toyota Camry. The driver of the Honda died on the scene.
And barely two weeks after that accident, in almost the exact spot, three visitors from New Jersey were driving north in the general purpose lanes.
It was rush hour, and traffic was backing up in the general purpose lanes, according to FHP spokesman Trooper Joe Sanchez.
“And they basically cut in through the express lanes and they were struck by that vehicle,” says Sanchez.
A BMW driving in the express lanes crashed into the car, killing two of the visitors from New Jersey.
Master Trooper William Smith says lane-diving is especially dangerous because it tends to happen when one set of lanes is moving quickly and the other is not.
Before the express lanes and the plastic poles, I-95 had one High Occupancy Vehicle lane separated by a strip of paint. Smith says back then, you didn’t have the dangerous differences in speed you see now.
“Was it dangerous then? Yeah. But [95 Express] does add a new element because now you have four lanes that are stopped and then you have two lanes that are moving," says Smith. "Of course somebody’s going to go: I’m in a hurry, I got to go where I got to go. And they cut through.”
The New Tropic, with help from data scientist Christopher Peters used the same FDOT data WLRN used for our fatal express lanes analysis to look at overall crash trends along a roughly 13-mile stretch of I-95 that contains the 95 express lanes as well as entry and exit points for the express lanes. (You can read their full analysis here.)
They found that most crashes along that stretch happened during rush hour traffic, that serious "incapacitating" accidents seemed to occur throughout the day and that fatal accidents are most likely between 10 pm and 5 am. A chart for fatal accidents is shown earlier in this story. Below, see a chart looking at what time of the day crashes -- all types -- occur on that stretch of I-95. Again, credit to The New Topic and data scientist Christopher Peters.