Walker is the widow of Rickey Walker, who was killed in a three-vehicle cross-over accident on Sept. 13, 2011 near Paducah. “I’m so grateful that they’ve decided to move forward with this project. I’ll be forever grateful if just one life can be saved,” she said.
Rickey Walker died after colliding head-on with a vehicle that had crossed the I-24 median into his lane. Police said Walker’s 2008 Chevy Malibu, which waseastbound, was struck by a 2008 Nissan Altima when the Altima crossed the median following an initial collision with a dump truck. Apparently, a tire blow-out on the westbound 1992 GMC dump truck forced it into the passing lane, colliding with the Altima. Both vehicles crossed the median, but only the Altima was involved in the head-on with Walker’s truck.
“Getting that call and waiting alongside the interstate was a surreal experience,” Patty Walker said. “I’ve ridden in a car with that man for 40 years; he’s always been a very careful driver, but in that one moment in time, the black box that was recovered from his truck showed that he hit the brakes three seconds before impact. That’s all he had—three seconds to react. Witnesses stated that a cloud of dust was raised when the (dump) truck hit the Altima, and both those vehicles landed in the median. Whether or not Rickey saw the cloud of dust at that moment — or even the other car barreling toward him, we don’t know. We just know he had three seconds to react. In many ways, that’s a long time, but this time ...” her voice trailed off, “it wasn’t long enough.”
“This is the first installation of median cable barriers along I-24 in Kentucky,” said Kentucky Transportation Cabinet District 2 Chief Engineer Kevin McClearn. “This project will begin at mile marker 70, near the Christian-Trigg County line and extend to the U.S. 41-Alternate Exit 86 Interchange at mile point 85.5. A median cable barrier provides an extra margin of safety by helping ensure vehicles involved in a crash do not cross into oncoming traffic.”
In the last four years there have been 13 fatal crashes on the 93 miles of I-24 in Kentucky. Five of those fatalitys were a result of cross over collisions — two in McCracken County (2010, 2011) and three in Christian County (two in 2011, one in 2013). There were no crossover crashes recorded on I-24 in Kentucky during 2012. In comparison, interstates in Jefferson County recorded 26 crossover fatalitys in about a four years prior to barrier installation. That number dropped to one after installation.
Besicdes the 15-mile section starting construction this week, McClearn sais two more sections of I-24 are likely to have cable barriers installed within the next few years. A nine-mile section in McCracken County from the three- to-12-mile marker (scene of the Walker fatality) and a seven-mile section in Christian County from about the 86- to-93-mile marker are both nearing the top of a Highway Safety Improvement Program priority list.
Statewide, Transportation Cabinet budgeted about $1.5 million on median cable barriers in 2013, including the section starting construction in Christian County. This year, the agency has budgeted about $3 million. The average per mile cost in Kentucky is $113,000. That indicates the agency can install about 27 miles of additional median cable this year.
Patty Walker thinks about the $113,000 cost per mile. “That’s a lot of money,” she said. “But, then, it’s just $113,000 for a whole mile. If that saves one life—just one—it’s worth it. Just $113,000 dollars for one life.”
Kentucky State PoliceMaster Sergeant (Ret) Chris Anderson has reminded Patty of what she already knows and understands . . . that the barrier is not infallible and won’t stop a fully loaded semi-trailer truck or any other heavy vehicle larger than an sport utility vehicle, but she said: “It could stop just one—even if it could just slow down a vehicle that is out of control. Rickey hit his brakes in three seconds. What if he’d had a little more time — seven or 10 seconds, even? He could have sped up, slowed down, or maybe even swerved.”
Kentucky has about 130 miles of barrier installed — most of it along interstates and parkways in urban areas. Locations selected for barrier installation are based on crash data from police reports. As work starts on the first I-24 installation, engineers are reminding motorists to be alert for shoulder and lane restrictions in the work zone.
Once anchor points are in place, the installation is expected to cover about one to two miles per day.
As the new section of median cable barrier nears completion, the cabinet and contractor will schedule a training session for police, ambulance, fire-rescue, wrecker operators, and other emergency personnel on the new feature and the best way to safely remove vehicles that hit it.
“I also realize that a barrier will limit the ability of emergency responders to cross the median to reach a crash site in the opposing lanes. That issue will just have to be addressed,” said Walker, “but everyone needs to realize that drivers can be just as safety-conscious as my Rickey and still be involved in an accident. These barriers can only help. They might not stop them all, but if they help only one.”
Meanwhile, Patty Walker moves along in her life, devoted to the grandchildren that Rickey adored.
She is the smiling face inside the front door of Akridge Farm Supply/Ace Hardware in Eddyville — the first smile that nearly everyone sees and the cheerful face that belies the tragedy that unfolded along an interstate. “If the barrier can stop just one vehicle, it’s worth it.”