Highways don't kill — drivers do.
No matter how nerve-wracking driving on either the Merritt Parkway or Interstate 95 can be, state officials say it's the drivers, not the roads that cause problems. Still, both highways are undergoing extensive construction that includes road realignment, bridge replacement and interchange redesign.
"The problems on the Merritt Parkway and I-95 are multi-faceted," said Lt. J. Paul Vance, Connecticut State Police spokesman.
Running through Fairfield County, the Merritt Parkway earned a national reputation for its art-deco architecture and verdant landscapes. Although many harried drivers don't notice the road's 66 bridges; they're contending with narrow lanes, speeding cars, distracted drivers and construction barriers.
Opened in June 1938, the oldest portion of the Merritt runs from Greenwich to Norwalk. Today two lanes run 37 miles in either direction from the New York state border to Stratford.
But the Merritt wasn't designed for the volume or size of vehicles that travel on it today, officials say. Most accidents on the Merritt occur during morning and evening rush hour. And there are few places for disabled vehicles to pull over.
Although lanes are wider on I-95, congestion and disrepair afflict the drivers on that interstate as well. Construction of the highway, which runs from Florida to Maine, was finished in 1958.
"I-95 is busy morning, noon, and night, and that keeps us busy," Vance said.
Keeping the roads safe falls to the state police and state DOT. And towns don't have jurisdiction over entrance and exit ramps either, according to Lt. Don Wakeman of the and Sgt. Suzanne Lussier of the .
Local drivers often complain about both roadways.
"They should increase the number of lanes on 84 so the trucks can get off 95," said Frieda Margiloff of Greenwich.
While there are no plans to take trucks off I-95 or add lanes to the Merritt, there are a number of construction projects on both highways.
"It's absolutely meant to improve the safety of the Merritt Parkway," Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, said of the $66.5 million federal stimulus project.
Current safety improvements on the Merritt target Fairfield and Trumbull from the Congress Street overpass in Fairfield to Exit 52 in Trumbull. The plan includes restoring 13 historic bridges. And the bridge over Mill River between exits 44 and 46 in Fairfield will be completely replaced.
As for the lack of shoulders and narrow lanes, DOT said the shoulder would be widened to include a 4-foot-wide paved shoulder together with a 4-foot-wide grass shoulder.
As for I-95, the most significant project is the "Q" bridge, or the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge. It's called "Q" because it carries drivers over the mouth of the Quinnipiac River.
"It's nothing short of dreadful by today's standards," Nursick said.
Stretched beyond capacity, the 50-year-old Q bridge will eventually be replaced by a new bridge. DOT estimates that the $554 million project will be completed in 2016.
To determine where lanes need widening, DOT considers accident statistics and traffic patterns. However, Nursick added a caveat.
"What makes any road dangerous is the drivers," Nursick said. "Driver error is to blame for all accidents in Connecticut."
Statistics appear to support that argument.
According to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, in 2009 Connecticut had 223 traffic compared with 33,800 nationwide. That's down from 302 statewide and 37,423 nationwide in 2008.
In Fairfield County, there were 42 fatal accidents in 2009 compared with 49 in 2008.
Of the 223 crashes in Connecticut, 119 involved blood alcohol consumption of .01 and 104 involved blood alcohol of .08. Aside from driving under the influence, the three main causes of accidents are speeding, failure to grant right of way, and following too closely.
Although the Merritt has one other culprit. The very trees that once prompted people to picnic road side now instill fear among drivers.
In 2007 the state began trimming and cutting numerous trees along the Merritt after complaints soared. An average of 10 people died every three years in tree-related accidents between 1985 and 1992, according to the state DOT.
Vance said the idea that the Merritt and I-95 are inherently dangerous is based on impression, not reality.
"The state police has looked at this on a regular basis," Zance said. An accident happens usually when someone is violating state law – failing to signal change, speeding."
"Driver behavior has deteriorated," Nursick said. "The lack of courtesy and utter failure for motorists to obey even the simplest of rules."