Smashed windshield a sign of Washington's troubled roadways

Jul 24, 2012

When a chunk of I-5 flew up and smashed through the windshield of a car carrying a family of four, the dangers of Washington's crumbling roadways became all too real.

"The rock hit me so hard in the chest, it literally took my breath away," Henry Jessop, who was in the passenger seat, told KOMO. His son Ian and his daughter were in the back seat, and his wife was behind the wheel.

Jessop had to have stitches on his chin and inside his mouth. His chin and chest were also severely bruised by the piece of pavement.

And it was a freak incident, said Chris Johnson of the Washington Department of Transportation, since he couldn’t remember another time when a chunk of pavement flew up and smashed through a windshield in his 35 years with the state.

This damaged bit of road on I-5 north of Northgate in Seattle is become more common as money for fixing roads hasn't kept up with need.
Credit Mallory Kaniss / KPLU

However, it could become more common as the list of repairs needed on the state’s highways and interstates is far outstripping the state’s ability to fix the problems.

"As our transportation system has more wear and tear on it, and as we go longer without revenue dollars to just take care of the system that we have, we're unfortunately going to see more of this kind of thing," Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond told KOMO.

"Anybody who has lived here long enough knows I-5 is now over 60 years old and the concrete is aging," said Bill Vlcek, Deputy Regional Administrator with Wash DOT. "I-5 has a lifespan and we are reaching the end of it."

“What we’re seeing is more deteriorating concrete panels…Unfortunately, to replace all the panels on I-5 in King County has a price tag of $2 billion,” said Lorena Eng, also with Wash DOT.

There are 350 concrete panels for every mile of I-5. In terms of the funding, Eng said the Department doesn’t have anywhere near the amount needed to replace the aging panels. So in the mean time, they’re focused on fixing what she calls “the worst of the worst.”

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(Video: KOMO's report on the incident.)

Initially there was some confusion about where the piece of debris came from. The initial report to the Washington State Patrol was that someone had thrown a rock from an overpass, said Trooper Julie Judson, a spokesperson with WSP.

But when troopers got to the scene, located the rock and performed an investigation, they determined that the piece of rock was part of the roadway that had been kicked up by the wheels of another vehicle and launched into the air to punch through the windshield.

Pieces of the roadway and parts that fall off of vehicles are a constant problem, she said.

“Many times, we’ve received calls that people believe that their car had been shot at, for instance,” Judson said. “Road debris is a huge problem, (including) things falling off of vehicles.”

Put a motorcycle in that situation and the dangers are even more pronounced, of course.

“Unfortunately, motorcyclists have a lot of hazards to deal with. Something that can be just a simple bump in the road for us is something that can take them off their vehicles if it’s substantial enough. So any kind of flying debris is a huge concern,” she added.

The state does plan to spend $170 million to repair I-5 between now and 2024, state officials said. However, Wash DOT won't receive the bulk of money until 2016.