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Bus wreck site gets a hard look

 It was the worst accident at the I-75 ramp at Northside Drive. But it wasn't the first. 

At least 82 other drivers have crashed at the overpass from which a bus fell early Friday morning, killing four college baseball players, the bus driver and his wife.   

Forty-eight of the wrecks happened at the top of the ramp, where it runs into Northside Drive, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of Georgia Department of Transportation data collected since 1998. Two people died in the previous crashes.   

The National Transportation Safety Board said late Friday it would look at the ramp's configuration and the signs leading up to it.   

Those may be a problem, said Fred Hanscom, director of the Transportation Research Corp. based near Washington. Hanscom serves on a committee that writes the Federal Highway Administration manual on uniform traffic control Ñ a guide that includes proper ways to give traffic flow information to drivers.   

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"When highway engineers design traffic control devices, a major thing to consider is a concept called driver expectancy, " Hanscom said. "When we design signs, we have to know how drivers behave."   

"A major problem is that this [the Northside Drive HOV ramp] was a left-hand exit, " said Hanscom, who noted that he had never studied this particular ramp himself. "Most off-ramps in the United States are right-hand exits. Left-hand exits violate driver expectancy."   

That doesn't mean they should not be used, he said, it means traffic engineers have to prepare drivers that a left-hand exit is coming up. If it's only at the exit itself, Hanscom said, "that's too late."   

A tour bus carrying an Ohio college baseball team to Florida crashed in Atlanta, killing five baseball team members, a bus driver and his wife, while injuring 28 others.

"There are a lot of principles of highway signing that may be violated here [approaching the Northside Drive ramp], " Hanscom said.   

Strikingly similar accident   

Six years ago this week, a 75-year-old woman followed an identical path up the exit, crashing at the top of the ramp and coming to rest on Northside Drive. Her passenger was killed. Police said the driver, Doris Wietlisbach Ñ who like the Bluffton University baseball team was traveling from Ohio to Florida Ñ "apparently" fell asleep at the wheel.   

Wietlisbach's daughter, Tina Kramer, said in an interview Friday that her mother didn't remember what happened at the time of the accident. "So we didn't know, " said Kramer, adding that her mother now has Alzheimer's.   

Those who died in Friday's crash were identified by Bluffton University as sophomores David Betts and Tyler Williams; freshmen Scott Harmon and Cody Holp and bus driver Jerome Niemeyer and his wife, Jean, all from Ohio. Twenty-nine other passengers survived. Two were in critical condition Friday, one was serious and 16 others were in good to fair condition, area hospital officials said Friday.   

Sharon Bledsoe, a Chattanoogan who used to live in Atlanta, said when she heard about the bus crash she knew the location right away.   

"I knew exactly which [ramp] they were talking about, " said Bledsoe, who recalled driving a minivan carrying her four children earlier this year when she had a scare. She realized just in time that veering left did not mean staying in the HOV lane, and swerved out of it. "I thought we were going to turn over, " she said.   

"It's confusing, " she said. And once a driver realizes the mistake, "there's not a lot of time for you to reduce your speed."   

State Department of Transportation director of operations Stephen Henry said the configuration and the signs at the I-75 HOV off-ramp to Northside Drive are in line with federal safety standards, and in some cases exceed them.   

He noted that the bus apparently did not slow down despite two signs warning that a stop sign was coming, followed by the stop sign itself at the top of the ramp. Michael Dabrowa, an AJC employee who witnessed the accident, noticed no brake lights, and officials found no skid marks.   

Henry said the difference between the HOV lane and the exit to the left is clear because the exit ramp begins with a lane dotted off from the HOV lane. He said the suddenness of the exit lane and the arrows directing traffic left is not a problem, since the HOV lane doesn't disappear but continues on down I-75.   

"You have a dedicated lane, " he said, describing the path intended for HOV drivers. "You never lose this double line" marking the right margin of the HOV lane.   

Within specifications   

In the two miles before southbound HOV drivers on I-75 arrive at the Northside Drive exit, they see more than a dozen road signs. But only when the driver has rounded a blind curve and come upon the Northside Drive exit is there any indication that keeping left means exiting the HOV lane, and the highway.   

An off-ramp a little farther north presents another challenge for HOV drivers: To exit, they have to leave the HOV lane, cross every lane of traffic and exit to the right with the rest of the cars. They have a quarter-mile of warning to make the move to the right. Henry said the I-75 HOV lane exits follow transportation safety rules, noting the Northside Drive HOV ramp abides by or is better than federal standards like those in the Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.   

"It's clear you're not on the main line, " he said. "The striping is well lit. There are exit signs. There is barrier wall on both sides."   

Asked if the bus driver might have been confused all the same, he said, "These are professional drivers." 

  

Computer Assisted Reporting Specialist Megan Clarke and staff writer Rosalind Bentley contributed to this article.

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