It seems we often report on crashes or other emergencies that shut down interstate highways in our area, and that has led to many of you asking why the roads are closed so long.
Drivers were stuck for more than 10 hours on Interstate 81 near Clarks Summit after a seven-vehicle crash in January. One tractor trailer caught on fire.
"I have been watching the gas gauge as we go. Thank God my heat still works. (It's) crazy," said one driver.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, drivers waste more than 3 billion gallons of fuel a year waiting in traffic backups.
PennDOT officials in Harrisburg tell us in 2015, there were 398 crashes on our interstates. The average wait time to get at least one lane open was about an hour and a half.
"We do have to stop traffic and make sure we can identify and correct the issue," said PennDOT official Richard Roman. "So if there is a tractor trailer on fire, or a car that is on the wrong side of how it should be, or someone is trapped in their vehicle, we need to make sure we stop traffic from getting into that area and causing even more harm to people and their vehicles so traffic does get stopped when we have issues on our roadways."
As part of his job at PennDOT, Roman oversees traffic on the interstates. He says there is no set standard on how long an interstate can stay closed after a crash.
"Every situation is different," Roman said. "You never want to rush a police officer who is doing a recreation because of a fatality and you don't want to rush anything that hazards the environment, that needs to be cleaned up properly. There are fires that take two, three hours to just burn out and so you can have a 90-minute policy, but if the truck is still on fire, there is still a lot to deal with there."
So what happens after the first trooper responds? And is it really necessary to close an interstate highway for 10 hours or more?
We asked Trooper David Peters of the Pennsylvania State Police Hazleton barracks what happened at that crash in December that shut down Interstate 80 near Lake Harmony for 12 hours.
"The one in Carbon County, in particular, was two tractor-trailers resulting in a fatal collision. At that point in time, that is going to cause a more extensive lane closure and road closure for a period of time because of reconstruction. We have to determine how that crash occurred to determine whether or not criminal charges will be filed in the particular case," explained Trooper Peters.
Officials tell us reconstruction can take hours and troopers have one chance to get all the evidence from the original scene.
In this instance, not only did they have to put out a fire, they also had to remove a body, reconstruct the scene, and call environmental protection units to help clean up fuel that spilled onto the road.
"It can take an extensive period of time to get the manpower you need to either shut down this exit here, get the sign boards in place, and start moving people, alleviate that oncoming traffic so you can get rid of that backlog. It depends on how fast you can there. I'd love to say in a situation like that, we do get people there quite quickly, but they are navigating through the backlog, too, and if you have a five-mile backlog, well, they are traveling on the berm, they aren't coming the wrong way, so yes, it takes time," said Peters.
Now that we have a little bit of a better understanding of what happens in Pennsylvania, we decided to visit our neighbors to the north and find out what troopers do in New York State.
"This is a time-consuming process, even with the technology available to us today," said New York State Police Capt. Jon Lupo.
Driving on Interstate 87 in upstate New York is a lot like driving on our interstates with two lanes weaving through woods and mountains.
We went to Albany to ask New York State Police about how crashes are handled there.
"A crash that I can think of there was a fatality involved and the scene had to be shut down so that proper investigations, both by our collision reconstruction unit and other responding agencies, and by the time it was done, we had been there well over six hours. Even after we clear the scene and open all the lanes up, you're still going to have backups for many minutes after," said Capt. Lugo.
The Federal Highway Administration was not able to give us any guidelines on how long highways should be closed after crashes or how the length of interstate closures varies from state to state.
The feds say how long highways are closed is a decision that's made at the state level.