Like many of you, I’ve been driving Interstate 10 along the Gulf Coast for much of my life. It has always been dangerous. Lately, it seems, it has gotten worse.
Drugs? Cell phone distractions? Incompetence?
You tell me. I’m guessing all of the above.
On a recent road trip from Baton Rouge to Mobile, we saw at least seven vehicles that had wrecked or skidded off the road. Admittedly, there was some moderate, though not heavy, rain during our drive. But it always rains in south Louisiana.
And there were years when I would make the round trip between Baton Rouge and New Orleans every day for weeks at a time and wouldn’t see half as many spun out or overturned cars as we did over the course of just one weekend.
The stretch of I-10 east between New Orleans and Slidell is particularly bad. The rules of the road do not apply in this zone of lawlessness. It is a spectacle, at once fascinating and terrifying, to behold.
Cars zip diagonally between lanes, zigging and zagging, as they make a sport of passing with the narrowest of margins. They tail each other, race each other, zoom up on each others’ bumpers, then brake, then accelerate, as if this strip of swampy highway was a go-kart track.
There are occasionally law enforcement officers in the area, mind you, radar guns poised and ready to nail somebody’s grandfather going 75 mph in a 70 mph. Somehow, though, they never manage to catch the Polaris Slingshot doing 90 down the center line.
The problem with the lack of enforcement lies not only at the ground level. It’s systemic. On the Mobile road trip, on the outskirts of New Orleans east, we noticed an aging gray Suburban weaving among the lanes. Its rear was dented. Its license plate nonexistent. Its rate of speed, completely erratic, which made it all the more difficult to get away from it.
If we sped up and tried to pass him, we risked getting nailed. If we slowed down, we risked getting caught up in whatever mass accident he was bound to cause sooner or later.
So I called 911.
When the dispatcher answered, I reported our location, the mile marker, the nearest exit, the vehicle make and model and described the situation. I was feeling smug, which is probably never a good thing.
“What’s your name?” the dispatcher asked.
“My name?” I asked. “You need my name to take down a report of a reckless driver?”
I gave him my name.
“Can you spell it?” the dispatcher asked.
“What?” I replied. “This guy is getting away and he is endangering people.”
“I need the spelling of your name,” he said.
I complied. It got worse.
“Do you want me to connect you to the police?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I practically screamed. “Can’t you report this to the police and ask them to dispatch an officer?”
“Do you want me to connect you to the police?” he repeated.
“I want you to do whatever is the quickest way to get this guy off the highway before he kills someone!” I said.
He mumbled something unintelligible and said when a car was in the area they would send it our way. By then, we were nearing the bridge to Slidell.
I hung up and called the Louisiana State Police, a real law enforcement agency that would take my call seriously, right?
After navigating a voicemail system with several prompts, a dispatcher for Troop B in Kenner answered and listened while I went through the whole thing again.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’ll have to hang up and call the New Orleans police.”
It was like a scene from a bad movie except just at that moment, before anybody died, the Suburban pulled over to the shoulder, under an overpass, to rendezvous with a ratty looking truck that appeared to be waiting for him. I have no idea what it was about, and I’d bet a chunk of change that no law enforcement officer got there in time to witness any dangerous, illegal behavior, if one showed up at all.
But I know a lot of innocent people driving I-10 were unnecessarily put at risk while a 911 operator fixated on how to spell “Riegel.”
If you talk to people who spend much of their days on the highway, they will likely tell you that distracted driving, the idiot factor and the resulting accidents seem to have gotten worse.
Statistics bear this out. In 2017, the latest year for which statistics are available, the Highway Safety Research Group at LSU’s E. J. Ourso College of Business published its annual report showing highway fatalities in Louisiana increased nearly 2% between 2016 and 2017, though, perhaps surprisingly, state highways proved more lethal than federal interstates.
More significant is the long-term trend, which shows interstate fatalities in the state were up 12% between 2012 and 2017, though 2017 was down over 2016, according to the report.
Another study, this one from March 2019, ranked Louisiana’s roads seventh-worst of the 50 states, due in part to the state’s high number of motor vehicle fatalities.
With so many other pressing problems facing our city, state and nation, dangerous highways and reckless drivers don’t seem to be getting anyone too riled up. It’s just one more problem to add to the list.
But it’s a very real danger and we’re all vulnerable. Better oversight and enforcement could go a long way toward making things safer for everyone.