Last month, two young women on motorcycles were traveling north on the I-95 express lanes in North Miami. Suddenly, a car in the regular lanes — or “free lanes” — darted through the plastic poles and struck Cynthia Fleischmann and Catherine Perez.
The young women were rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Fleischmann, an emerging bodypainting artist in Miami, lost her right leg below the knee. Her hip was fractured. Perez has a broken foot and is still undergoing reconstructive surgeries.
"The cones need to be removed and soon to prevent more accidents," Fleischmann said. "I'm happy to be alive, but I don't want others to have my same fate, or worse."
Perez added: "The reason why we were in the express lanes was because we felt safer outside of the traffic."
After the accident, their close friend Fernando Gonzalez started an online petition to swap the plastic poles for ones that would keep vehicles from skirting in and out. The petition has garnered more than 500 supporters so far. “It's crazy because their accident could've been prevented,” Gonzalez says.
An investigation by The New Tropic found that from 2005 to 2012, there have been more than 13,900 crashes in the 12.6 miles that encompass the express lanes and the sections before and after them where people are merging lanes.
A group of Perez's and Fleischmann's friends had met to brainstorm ways to make the lanes safer. They believe that sturdier metal barricades are the solution. “Like in Europe,” Gonzalez points out. “They can be pulled down, for example, if there's an accident.” Or, he says, "There shouldn't be express lanes in the first place. I know they bring in a lot of money, but the biggest concern should be the safety of the people." The express lanes tolls have brought in nearly $100 million.
The express lanes were introduced to South Florida in 2009. There are 7,000 poles spanning from I-395 to the Golden Glades exchange.
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It's estimated that 500 are replaced every week from drivers bumping them. It costs $1 million a year to replace them. Gonzalez is part of a growing number of drivers who believe the express lanes have made driving on I-95 more dangerous as drivers wedge through the lanes if there is traffic on the free lanes or jump out of the express lanes to avoid the toll sensor.
"What happened to my friends [a driver darting into the express lanes] has happened to me at least three times," Gonzalez says. "It's hard to brake on a motorcycle when you're going 60 miles per hour... My friends never saw the car coming."
Currently, the express lanes are being extended from the Golden Glades interchange to Broward Boulevard. The 14,000 poles being installed there will be sturdier, though a Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson didn't have too many details yet on the specific design.
This month, Florida Highway Patrol is launching the "Drive Safe 95 Express" campaign. More troopers than usual will be driving on I-95, and they'll be looking specifically for drivers jumping in and out of the express lanes. A ticket brings three points on a license and a $179 fine.