Gridlock Guy: Distracted driving, I-20 work zone jams, and a great citizen

Herschel Evans and his wife, Holly, pose in front of his “Citizen Driver of the Year” plaque outside of the big truck stop on Hollowell Parkway at I-285 on Wednesday, October 14th, 2020. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Traffic

Credit: Doug Turnbull

Credit: Doug Turnbull

Getting distracted from distracted driving diligence: October is, among many other things, National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The National Safety Council actually delayed this observance six months, because traffic volume was so low in April. And considering the coverage that COVID-19 rightly garnered then, anti-distracted driving stories simply wouldn’t land in the spring.

Frankly, the message hasn’t landed enough here in Georgia since the anti-texting and driving law went into effect in July 2018. Despite emphatic efforts from stage agencies, law enforcement, law firms, and the media, the “new car smell” of that law has worn off.

Distracted driving encompasses far more than the texting and holding of phones that Georgia’s law bans. Programming in-car infotainment systems and GPS devices is legal. Getting into an animated conversation with a passenger is legal. They both are distracting. Other state laws ban distracted driving in general, so anything from eating to putting on makeup is covered in the event of a wreck or a pullover for reckless driving. At that point, the distracted behavior is in an officer’s judgment.

But our standard, as operators two thousand-pound bullets, should be higher than any law. Atlanta drivers have never had “rock hard abs” regarding driving with full attention. But 2020 has seen drivers get soft with this and with the art of driving in general.

I see drivers all the time blatantly holding phones and texting with cars in motion. This is as bad as holding a tall boy and taking a gulp. Inebriation and distraction literally have the same effect on driving.

In a recent crash in Texas, a 16-year-old driver in a pickup plowed into another car that had slowed for a construction zone. The teenager only attempted to brake at the last second. Four-year-old Abbie Sullivan sustained severe head injuries and doctors declared her brain dead. The family chose to have her organs donated to help others, forging some good out of a tragedy. But the holes in their hearts are still gaping and emanating pain. Sullivan’s family and friends are using the “#PutItDownForAbbie” hashtag on social media to raise awareness for the issue. They also are selling merchandise and apparel to raise money for the family’s medical and funeral bills.

The NSC says over 700 people per day get injured in distracted driving crashes and that stat includes the legal programming of in-car systems. We all have to do better and the tragedy of little Abbie Sullivan in Texas should be a sobering reminder.

Unique I-20 work zone causing confusion: Crews have a major undertaking on I-20 in both directions between Villa Rica and Temple. One lane of I-20/eastbound has been transplanted to the I-20/westbound side of the interstate, as workers make major repairs. So this takes a lane of capacity for I-20/westbound travelers, but moreover creates an extreme lane shift for I-20/eastbound. And then the traffic shifts back to the proper configuration at Highway 61/101/Villa Rica (Exit 24).

Drivers have a choice on I-20/eastbound near Highway 113/Temple (Exit 19): they can choose to carefully cross the median and use the makeshift, reversed I-20/westbound lane or they can head straight and stay in the regular I-20/eastbound lane. The WSB Traffic Team and I have noticed big time backups and crashes almost daily in this tricky five-mile stretch of Carroll County.

With so many tractor trailers in this area and with such sweeping maneuvers necessary, the margin for error here is even lower than normal. And when crashes and stalls break out, there are even less lanes left open and smaller emergency lanes on which to clear problems. So the interstate frequently shuts down and/or gets extremely backed up.

Drivers need to prepare before driving on this portion of the West Freeway by tuning in for live updates on 95.5 WSB and Channel 2 Action News and running with the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App in the background of their phones. Doing all this ups the odds of knowing what is ahead, so evasive action can be taken. And while driving in this area, drivers need to deploy extra focus for the sweeping lane shifts.

Cheers to Herschel Evans, a true champion: WSB Traffic Trooper Herschel Evans is a longtime truck driver and longtime listener to 95.5 WSB. He frequently (and safely) calls in timely traffic info to our Traffic Team, something anyone can do 24/7. (Save 404-897-7358 and help us help others!) But Evans is so much more than a helpful driver. He is a champion and has rightly been awarded.

TravelCenters of America awarded Evans its 2020 Citizen Driver of the Year Award this past Wednesday at their store at the massive Petro truck stop on Hollowell Parkway at I-285. Several people spoke before Evans' many accomplishments: multi-time state and national safe driving competition champion, over three million crash-free miles behind the wheel of a truck, major organizer in multiple Convoy of Care events to help natural disaster victims, and organizer for years of the Safety Drive for a Cure event to raise money for and the spirits of childhood brain cancer patients. Evans has also been a safe driving road team captain, traveling the nation to educate both truck drivers and regular citizens on the rules of the road.

There likely isn’t a way for anyone to do more with their small time on earth than Evans has. He has also been extremely helpful to WSB on trucking stories and safe driving causes, including describing how COVID-19 has caused major ups and downs in his industry. Evans attributes the success of his charitable efforts to many people saying yes to him when he would ask for help.

Evans was truly humbled and, for a rare time, nearly speechless when a plaque with his picture and accolades was unveiled on the outside back wall of the store.

Evans is a champion behind the wheel and in life. He sets the bar very high.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

In Other News