Vehicles plunged off the freeway system in Milwaukee twice in a span of a little more than week after major winter storms created treacherous driving conditions for motorists.
On Feb. 6, a pick-up truck hurtled off an exit ramp bridge in the Zoo Interchange and plummeted about 70 feet, crashing onto the westbound lanes of Interstate 94. The driver of the truck survived the terrifying crash, which was captured by a Wisconsin Department of Transportation camera.
On Feb. 14, a second vehicle plunged off the freeway after colliding with a snowbank and crashing to a ramp to Intestate 794 in the Marquette Interchange.
The driver, a 27-year-old woman, was believed to be under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash, which occurred about 2:30 a.m., according to reports. She survived the crash and was arrested at the scene. Investigators said that the car was traveling north on Interstate-94 and started heading west when it went over the side of the freeway.
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A preliminary investigation of the earlier accident by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department revealed that the pick-up truck driven by Richard Lee Oliver was traveling on the ramp from westbound I-94 to southbound Interstate 41 when Oliver lost control of the vehicle.
The truck motored up a snowbank, jumped over a barrier wall and plummeted to the freeway below.
In an interview with Good Morning America, Oliver said from a hospital bed that he lost control of his truck when it encountered snow that had been piled up along the side of the road.
The scary incident conjured up memories of a similar accident in December 2016 that ended in tragedy.
Christopher Weber, 27, of Milwaukee, lost control of the truck he was driving on an ice-covered stretch of the Hoan Bridge along the I-794 overpass. The truck swerved into a retaining wall, briefly traveled up a snowbank and crashed to the ground below the bridge.
[WARNING: This video shows a fatal crash, which may be upsetting to some viewers]
Tragedy struck again on Feb. 12 when two people were killed, and two others injured when the vehicle in which they were riding collided with a concrete wall and plunged more than 40 feet off Interstate 55 in Chicago and crashed onto a street in a neighborhood on the city’s southwest side.
Illinois State Police reported that the vehicle was traveling too fast for road conditions along the stretch of I-55, known as the Stevenson Expressway, at the time of the accident, which occurred at about 4 a.m. Police confirmed there was a snowbank on I-55 where the accident occurred, but it wasn’t immediately clear if it was a factor in the crash.
The accidents have raised questions about snow and ice removal along freeway systems and highlight the dangers of winter weather driving, especially on icy roads and bridges.
A snow and ice removal plan is in place for all interstates, state trunk highways and county trunk highways throughout Milwaukee County, according to Julie Esch, deputy director of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation.
“The plan is necessarily flexible and requires the judgment of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation and its employees to react to the length and severity of winter events, forecasted temperatures and road conditions,” Esch said.
Numerous additional variables also impact winter weather roadway clean-up, she said.
Milwaukee County works to “maximize road safety as quickly as possible during winter weather events,” Esch said.
During severe winter weather, drivers are urged to remain at home as much as possible to accommodate clean-up efforts and motorists who must travel, she said.
“If travel is required, please allow sufficient extra time so that drivers can proceed slowly and with extreme caution, particularly on bridges and overpasses, which often present significantly different traveling conditions than other roadways,” Esch said.
Milwaukee County provides plowing operations for the DOT along portions of the freeway system.
“The Department contracts with each of the counties statewide for plowing services,” Wisconsin DOT spokesman Michael Pyritz said.
In general, it’s important to remind drivers to travel at speeds that are appropriate for conditions, Pyritz said.
“This applies to rain, snow, fog or any other condition that could impact motorist safety,” he added.
Weber’s family filed a lawsuit blaming the county for the fatal Hoan Bridge accident.
The suit claimed that because snow hadn’t been removed from the bridge’s shoulder it created a “launching pad” along the retaining wall, leading to the fatal outcome of the crash. The family sought $2.8 million in damages.
“Milwaukee County successfully defeated the claims brought after the tragic Hoan Bridge accident,” Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun said.
The trial court concluded that Milwaukee County could not be liable because it must exercise discretion in its plowing efforts in response to winter weather events and because the county did not know prior to the accident that there was an “immediate and extraordinary danger,” Daun said.
At the time of the accident, County crews were plowing the bridge but had not yet been able to plow the shoulders, she added.
The decision is being appealed.