Walker says speed plays major factor in I-84 crashes

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer February 26, 2013 07:21 am

Oregon Department of Transportationís Donny Walker of Island City said more often than not accidents on Interstate 84 involve someone going too fast. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH/The Observer
Oregon Department of Transportationís Donny Walker of Island City said more often than not accidents on Interstate 84 involve someone going too fast. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH/The Observer

by BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer 

Island City resident Donny Walker has worked in road maintenance for the Oregon Department of Transportation the past 12 years. 

During the spring, summer and fall he is a bridge crew coordinator, but in winter he works highway maintenance on the stretch of Interstate 84 running from Spring Creek to the west of La Grande to North Powder to the east. For about four months out of the year, he drives a plow. 

Following a snowfall on a recent Thursday morning, Walker and his co-worker Jimmy Low were sent out to clean slush off the barrier separating the east and westbound lanes between La Grande and Spring Creek. They worked in tandem, Walker’s plow scraping the barrier, and Low coming behind to clean up. 

The two stayed in close contact via radio.

Walker seemed to be a man content with his occupation. He also expressed high regard for his co-workers.

“A lot of people with ODOT try and take a whole lot of pride in what they do,” he said as he maneuvered close to the barrier, scraping and sending a spray of dirty slush and snow out into the roadway. 

The proximity of the truck to the barrier gave a reporter along for the ride a little case of nerves, but Walker made the job look easy. He said that in all his years with ODOT, he’s never been involved in a crash, though he has seen plenty. 

More often than not, he said, wrecks on the Interstate involve someone going too fast.

“Ninety percent of them are speed-related, people not driving for the conditions,” he said, just as a small white car zipped past the plow and cut suddenly in front of it. Walker tapped his brakes.

“It gets kind of crazy at times. You’ve got to keep your cool,” he said.

ODOT crash statistics corroborate Walker’s experiences.

Of the 51 fatal crashes on I-84 between Pendleton and Ontario that occurred from 2002 through 2011, 30 involved a driver who either exceeded the speed limit or was driving too fast for the conditions, according to ODOT.

Winter maintenance is an around-the-clock job, with work divided between two day crews and two night crews. Walker said the crew he’s a member of works 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, though the hours can vary.

“Sometimes we get called in early, but it’s no big thing,” he said.

Walker said that in his dozen years as an ODOT maintenance man, he’s seen his share of wrecks and wishes he hadn’t. He also said he is convinced that most of the crashes along the interstate are the kind that could have been avoided.

“Ninety percent of them are speed related, people going too fast for conditions,” he said.

Walker said he and his fellow workers are grateful to have equipment they can rely on. That day, he was driving a brand-new Volvo truck equipped with a front plow and a wing plow, and carrying 1,800 gallons of de-icer. Most functions are controlled by a joystick close by the driver’s hand.

“It’s way better than before when you had to reach behind you,” Walker said.

Walker said he thinks ODOT does a good job of educating the public about the highway and its conditions. The department has installed about a dozen variable message signs between Pendleton and Ontario in the last 10 years. It also maintains a 24/7 website, www.tripcheck.com, that gives up-to-the-minute reports on every highway maintained by the agency.

Walker said it’s disappointing more people don’t use the tools available. The website carries up-to-the-minute road conditions on highways throughout the state, with those conditions visible via road cams. 

He said if more people used the website — which these days can be accessed with a cell phone — they’d be better prepared for what’s ahead.

“ODOT’s spent a lot of money getting the word out for the traveling public,” Walker said.  “Tripcheck’s a really big bonus. Everybody’s got a smartphone these days.”

Walker said a consistent problem in winter involves truckers not stopping to chain up when the conditions call for it. 

“On a 5- or 6-percent grade, that’s where we get a lot of trouble. People don’t want to put their chains on and they spin out,” he said.

By the time Walker and Low went out to clean the barrier that Thursday, the roadway itself had been cleared and the sun was shining. Walker said this was a milk run compared to other days. 

Anything can happen when bad weather combines with excessive speed.

“I’ve been up in Ladd Canyon in whiteout conditions. There are times when you don’t know if someone’s stopping in front of you or getting ready to run into you from behind,” he said.