central texas — If you've driven on I-35 between Salado and Hillsboro since 2012, odds are, you've seen it: an accident leaving a trail of cars for miles sitting in what looks like a cattle chute with concrete barriers.
If it's really bad, a helicopter lands in front of you.
Reconstruction began on I-35 through Central Texas in 2012. Between then and 2016 (the most recent year for which numbers were available), there were 82 fatal accidents along the interstate in the four area counties which 35 goes through:
- Bell: 22
- Falls: 1
- McLennan: 40
- Hill: 19
Officer Juan Cardenas has worked for the Bruceville-Eddy Police Department for four years. In that time, he said about three-fourths of the department's workload has been along I-35.
"Pretty much every shift, we're getting called to a traffic accident, whether it's minor or major," Cardenas said.
The Texas Department of Transportation tracks crash statistics and breaks them down by the type of roadway and whether they were in a work zone. Between 2012 and 2016, there have been 50 fatal crashes in Central Texas work zones. However, it's unclear how many of those were along I-35:
- Bell: 20
- Falls: 2
- McLennan: 21
- Hill: 7
"The vast majority of crashes in our work zones are a result of excessive speed and distractions while driving," TxDOT Waco District spokesman Ken Roberts said.
Roberts added TxDOT takes a list of safety precautions around all of its work zones in order to keep everyone involved safe: the drivers and the construction workers.
One key method in doing so is safety devices you've likely seen: bright orange, reflective barrels and those hated concrete barriers.
Roberts said traffic lanes are the same width in construction zones as they are on the open road. But because of the concrete barriers, there is often no shoulder along the highway.
"We want to get there as quickly as possible," Cardenas said about responding to crashes on the interstate. "But, because of the construction, that has hindered us a bunch."
When a crash happens in the areas of the interstate surrounded by concrete barriers, it presents a problem for first responders, especially in rain.
"I've gotten stuck before. I've had a rollover crash...that I've tried to cut through the median and my partner stayed back to see if I made it," Cardenas said. "I didn't make it, so they had to double back and by the time they made it back around, I was barely getting out."
Because of that, TxDOT said it works with first responders, not only to know when highway closures are planned but to get to people in need of help.
TxDOT spokeswoman Jodi Wheatley outlined a few options they try to leave open for emergency responders in those situations:
- The ability to drive opposite the direction of traffic in front of a crash to reach it
- The ability to stop along the barrier traveling the opposite direction to jump over the barrier
- A break in the barriers to give emergency vehicles easier access to the middle section of the highway
However, Wheatley said the latter of the three options is only viable in areas where there's pavement on both sides of the barrier.
These problems are just part of why Cardenas and other police officers in the area find themselves frequently making traffic stops.
But during those stops, just like an accident, Cardenas wants to get out of the "cattle chute."
"If the vehicles are movable, we get them off the roadway," Cardenas said. "That's our first priority."
When the largest I-35 project since its initial construction is done, TxDOT said the highway will be safer and capable of carrying a heavier volume of traffic.
Until then TxDOT and police alike are hoping to make more people aware so drivers across the state will put the phone away and slow down.
"Any crash, any injury, any fatality in our work zones is one too many," Roberts said.
In addition, TxDOT pushes drivers "Know before you go."
TxDOT has websites, including my35.org which includes information about closures, accidents and other delays along I-35. To visit the site's page for the Waco District which includes Bell, Falls, McLennan, and Hill counties, click the link.