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Alabama Stretch of Interstate 85 Getting a Dangerous Reputation

A section of Interstate 85 in eastern Alabama is gaining an unwanted reputation as a dangerous highway, yet officials cannot agree on how to make it safer. In the past five years, 32 people have been killed in 27 motor vehicle accidents on Interstate 85 in Lee County, near Opelika. Opelika's mayor thinks he knows the reason for this. "The speed limit ought to be 55, as many fatals as we've had," states Mayor Gary Fuller. "If we say 70, folks will go 80 plus. If we say 55, folks will go 65. Folks aren't going 70 right now. You do that and everyone passes you." So Mayor Fuller sent a proposal to the Alabama Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit.

Alabama Department of Transportation Responds

ALDOT's response? Despite the rash of fatal accidents, ALDOT felt that lowering the speed limit would be "inappropriate." A representative of ALDOT noted that while excess speed increases the severity of the crashes, it is not necessarily their cause. Excessive speed was not listed as a factor in any of the accidents since 2007. To the contrary, the causes of the accidents were listed as improper lane change, possible cell phone use, falling asleep, pedestrian interference, use of alcohol, and loss of vehicle control.

The Lee County sheriff thinks there is another reason for the rash of accidents: traffic congestion. Three different U.S. highways converge in this section, along with Interstate 85 and four additional state highways. The area also includes four interchanges. The Opelika entrance ramp is especially troublesome because southbound traffic has little time or space to get up to highway speed before merging into the quickly moving southbound traffic flow. Local law enforcement authorities describe the area as a "bottleneck" and "a recipe for accidents."

ALDOT does plan to add additional traffic lanes and improve the exit and entrance ramps in the future. However, for now, the speed limit will remain at 70. To Mayor Fuller, ALDOT's refusal to lower the speed limit "doesn't make sense." ALDOT also states that while it believes its decision is sound, it is not written in stone. "We can revisit that at any time," noted an ALDOT spokesperson.