‘Devil’s Highway’: I-16 near Savannah the scene of horrific crashes

Friends and loved ones weep during a service for Emily Elizabeth Clark in April 2015. Clark and four other nursing students from Georgia Southern University were killed in a multi-vehicle accident on I-16. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Friends and loved ones weep during a service for Emily Elizabeth Clark in April 2015. Clark and four other nursing students from Georgia Southern University were killed in a multi-vehicle accident on I-16. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Three accidents have each taken five lives on the same road near Savannah — a stretch of I-16 that some are calling the “Devil’s Highway.”

The latest five-fatality wreck happened last month outside the town of Pooler; the first was the April 2015 crash that killed five Georgia Southern nursing students.

Local residents say there’s simply too much traffic and not enough highway, and large-scale expansions in the works can’t come soon enough.

“It just seems like to me nothing gets done around here until someone gets hurt,” said Brad Proudfoot, pastor of New Hope Christian Church. Church member Judy Vincent, 66, and her son were killed on I-16 last month.

Vincent was taking her son to a new job in Savannah from their home in Eden, Ga., on June 22. The two were driving a Kia east on I-16 about 6 a.m. when a Ford Mustang crossed the median and struck them head on. Everyone in both vehicles was killed.

The day after Vincent’s accident, the Savannah Morning News published an editorial calling on the Georgia Department of Transportation to improve safety on what “some area residents are now calling the Devil’s Highway.”

Two of the five-fatality accidents, including Vincent’s, occurred near the I-16 interchange with I-95, which is being rebuilt by GDOT. The five nursing students were killed 24 miles from the interchange, near Pembroke.

‘And now it’s spewing’

Pooler Mayor Mike Lamb says this is the best way to describe the highways around his city: shake a Coke bottle.

The more someone shakes it, the more pressure builds inside.

“What we’ve done is take our thumb off the top,” Lamb said. “And now it’s spewing.”

For years Chatham has made do with “substandard” roads, catching up little by little when adjustments needed to be made, Lamb said. But he said no one expected the area to take off the way it did.

Since 2000 the county’s population has grown 24 percent. The Savannah Port also grew 20 percent in the past five years and is deepening to keep up with demand. And while that’s expected to taper off, Georgia Port Authority data shows there could be about 670,000 more containers leaving the port on trucks by 2026.

And while Lamb agrees updates are long overdue, he believes GDOT’s on top of it now.

Bridge preservations along I-95, widening interchanges along Ga. 204 and reconstruction and rehabilitation along I-95 and I-16 are among the GDOT’s projects in Chatham County.

In addition GDOT is planning to expand a section of I-16 by one lane both eastbound and westbound out to Pooler. With a start date in 2019, that project wouldn't be completed until 2021.

GDOT is making a serious investment in Chatham County and the Savannah Port, said Commissioner Russell McMurry. With current and planned projects, it will spend about $500 million into the area, he said.

And McMurry said these are improvements made to last. With every project, GDOT is looking 20 years in the future, but with some of these projects it looked until 2050, he said.

Now the only problem is waiting.

“The frustration I think people have is one that I share—that these things aren’t happening fast enough,” McMurry said.

‘Time to throw the dog a bone’

Chatham County Commissioner Dean Kicklighter said there’s more to it than that.

While these projects are good, Kicklighter thinks they’re not enough. He wants to see more barriers set up that would prevent accidents like Vincent’s on June 22. He also said widening I-16 out to Pembroke, more than 25 miles past the interchange of I-95 and I-16, is necessary.

“It’s time to throw the dog a bone in this area because we’re in desperate need of help,” Kicklighter said.

In addition to infrastructure improvements, trucking safety has also been an issue.

An AJC story last year found changes in trucking standards contributed to two previous five-person crashes. I-16 is a main thoroughfare for trucks going to and from the Savannah Port.

In terms of infrastructure, GDOT has built roads like Jimmy Deloach Parkway to take trucks from the port to I-95 without causing congestion on other roadways.

Capt. Jeremy Vickery with the Motor Carrier Compliance Division of the Department of Public Safety says his department is cracking down by adding a variety of ways to enforce safety.

“Our guys are just doing what they’ve always been doing, we just got more tools in our tool box now,” Vickery.

‘We’re literally losing lives’

Data from the Motor Carrier Compliance Division shows between October 2015 and March 2016, speeding violations more than doubled — quadrupled in work and construction zones.

Inspections are also up. Last year there were 73,308, so far this year there’ve been more than 66,800. Vickery said the MCCD is on track to reach more than 80,000.

Lamb said he can’t imagine GDOT working much harder on this.

“If we’re looking at throwing money at transportation, we’ve done that,” Lamb said.

But Kicklighter said it’s still not enough. While the current project list works as a Band-Aid, he said, Chatham County needs surgery. And it’s a surgery it needs to accomplish as soon as possible because the days of putting up with bad roads are over.

“We’re literally losing lives,” he said. “And we need help.”