HELMSBURG — Danny Mars had broken ribs, a broken collarbone and broken lower leg — “basically, the whole left side of my body.”
He was the first driver to be injured in a crash on Railroad Road since it became the detour for state bridge work April 3.
Through the end of May, Brown County sheriff’s dispatch logged three property-damage crashes and three crashes involving injuries — five times more accidents than in the previous two-month period.
And there are still about two months to go before State Road 135 reopens.
Crash No. 3 happened on Memorial Day. Two motorcyclists, from Indianapolis and from Mooresville, hit each other in a curve coming from opposite directions on Railroad Road near Oak Ridge. One of them — the one wearing a helmet — was flown out by medical helicopter with a broken leg, back and shoulder and will be down for at least eight weeks, his sister told The Democrat. The other driver escaped with a possible broken nose and scrapes, the police report said.
Crash No. 2 happened May 22. An Indianapolis man crashed into a utility pole at Railroad and Stinson roads and had to be picked up by an ambulance. Police suspected he was drunk, but were waiting on blood test results.
Mars, of Unionville, crashed April 13 after passing a trash truck northbound on Railroad Road near Patriot Lane. Witnesses in the trash truck whom police interviewed said he passed them “at a high rate of speed,” but Mars said he couldn’t have been going more than 35 or 40 (mph) because the trash truck was going about 25 near the center, “like most people do when nobody’s coming.”
Mars’ truck struck a tree; he was found with the cab wrapped around his torso with his arms above his head, trapped and moaning. Firefighters had to cut him out of the vehicle.
Mars, 34, said it was the first wreck he’d ever had.
“If I was not wearing a seat belt (and) going 60 mph, I would have definitely died in that,” he said.
“In all honesty, the county is the reason for this, and we’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences,” he said.
Over the holiday weekend, Brown County Commissioner Diana Biddle — whose district the detour is in — said she drove back and forth on Railroad Road at 30 mph just to see that it could be done.
On April 5, 10 days before Mars’ crash, the commissioners had lowered the speed limit on the detour, from 40 to 30 mph. The second week of May, they also had double-yellow no-passing lines painted down the center.
Biddle said she believes the lines have helped drivers see that they need to slow down and stay within their lane. But still, when she was driving 30, people were honking behind her, she said.
Sheriff Scott Southerland said officers have been patrolling when they’re not on other assignments. Officers have made 28 traffic stops on Railroad Road since it became a detour; in the previous two month-period, they made only four in that area.
By and large it’s been out-of-town drivers who are following the “local detour” but not the posted rules, Southerland said.
That may be because local drivers are avoiding it, opting instead to use Oak Ridge, Spearsville or other back roads.
“There is some signage up there that says ‘no through trucks,’ but I don’t think that’s actually a statute that we can enforce,” the sheriff said.
“We can stop three of them, but next three semis up the road, they’re not from here. … It’s not going to prevent anyone else from doing it.”
The Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau and a couple local hotels have been encouraging visitors to avoid 135 altogether and come via State Road 46 or Interstate 65. However, police can’t prevent people who aren’t “local” from using the “local detour.”
The county doesn’t even have to designate a local detour onto county roads — and the Indiana Department of Transportation doesn’t have to allow it, Biddle said — but it was necessary since Brown County needs people to pass through it for the sake of its economy.
She said Railroad Road was chosen as the route because it was the most direct way to get around the bridge that’s being rebuilt, just south of Railroad Road’s junction with State Road 135 North.
“We can lay out five different detours, but we can only be reimbursed (from the state for road damage) for one, so whatever we lay out has to be the most convenient route,” Biddle said.
Railroad Road wasn’t wide enough to paint double-yellow lines in the middle and white “fog lines” at the sides, Brown County Highway Superintendent Mike Magner said.
Road and shoulder width are a problems on a lot of county roads after the county does ditching to keep water off them, which is another hazard, Biddle said.
“We don’t have enough room in our roadways for ditches, right-of-ways, pavement and everything else, and we can’t quite full up our ditches with gravel. That doesn’t work,” she said.
Mars said the edges of the road were a problem for him. When his back tire dropped off the thick edge of the pavement, he said he did not slow down and ease back onto the road. “If you go off and back on it, I promise you it will send you sideways,” he said.
“It scared the living daylights out of me. I didn’t know that could happen.”
Mars said people have been encouraging him to sue the county, but he doesn’t think he’d win, and that’s not the kind of guy he is.
Biddle said she’s been talking with the highway department about putting out more signs, but she doesn’t know if that would make any difference if drivers aren’t going to follow the ones that are already posted.
“The solution is I can close Railroad Road and you can get to Morgantown by going to Martinsville and Bloomington and back on 45. That’s the state-designated detour. But what’s that going to solve? Nothing. It’s just going to create a whole bunch more problems,” she said.
Biddle doesn’t take Railroad Road if she can help it; she uses Oak Ridge, the next north-south road to the west.
“If people are driving 30 and paying attention to their side of the road, it shouldn’t be that big of an issue,” she said.