Traffic

They were riding in the express lanes. They blame ‘lane-diving’ poles for tragedy

Cathy Milagros Perez Garcia, left, and her friend Cynthia Fleischmann, both involved in an accident in which Cynthia lost her right leg talk during a press conference held Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in Coral Gables. The two crash victims sued the Florida Department of Transportation and a contractor, accusing them of negligence in the maintenance and safety of the express lanes after they were involved in a lane-diving crash.
Cathy Milagros Perez Garcia, left, and her friend Cynthia Fleischmann, both involved in an accident in which Cynthia lost her right leg talk during a press conference held Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in Coral Gables. The two crash victims sued the Florida Department of Transportation and a contractor, accusing them of negligence in the maintenance and safety of the express lanes after they were involved in a lane-diving crash. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Lane diving has become a dangerous practice on Interstate 95 in South Florida, causing crashes when a car suddenly veers through the plastic poles from regular lanes into the toll express lanes.

The dangerous practice has put lane diving in the spotlight after two crash victims sued the Florida Department of Transportation and a contractor, accusing them of negligence in the maintenance and safety of the express lanes.

The lawsuits, which do not specify an amount sought, are among several legal actions against the toll lanes since they opened on I-95 in Miami-Dade County in 2008. From the start, crashes proliferated in the express lanes because drivers in the general purpose lanes often crashed through the plastic poles — known as “delineators” — to join faster traffic in the express lanes. The original plastic poles were flimsy and were designed to bend or break off when a vehicle struck them.

They have since been replaced by sturdier poles that still break off but can cause damage to a vehicle that hits them.

The lawsuits were announced during a news conference Tuesday at a law office in Coral Gables where the two victims, Cathy Milagros Pérez García and Cynthia Fleischmann, appeared with their attorneys.

On Oct. 14, 2015, Fleischmann, 30, and Pérez García, 36, were riding their Harley Davidson motorcycles in the express lanes about 500 feet south of Northwest 103rd Street when they were struck by a vehicle that suddenly entered the express lanes from the general purpose lanes.

“We were northbound, just cruising along on a beautiful afternoon,” recalled Fleischmann at the news conference. “All of a sudden, a car just came through the orange cones and hit me on the right side. Then, I believe, I hit Cathy and we hit the barricades, and it's a miracle we're still here to tell the story.”

Pérez García said the crash turned a peaceful day into a nightmare.

“It went from being a pleasant, beautiful ride into a storm, in just seconds,” she said. “I kept calling for Cindy, whom I saw her lying there and me yelling her name.”

Though Pérez García and Fleischmann survived, they were severely injured. Fleischmann lost her right leg and Pérez García suffered a broken foot, and to this day limps when she walks.

They were taken to Ryder Trauma Center with “significant and permanent injuries,” according to their separate lawsuits. Fleischmann's right leg above the knee was amputated in surgery, according to the lawyers in the law firm of Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables.

The lawsuits were filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against FDOT and DBI Services for "failing to maintain the orange plastic delineator poles on I-95 express lanes, creating a hazardous trap for drivers," according to a statement from the law firm.

A spokeswoman for FDOT said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. DBI Services did not respond to a message left in their telephone voicemail.

Besides naming FDOT and DBI Services, the driver of the vehicle that allegedly struck the motorcycles and its owner also were cited in the lawsuits.

There have been 12,195 accidents recorded in the last three years in Miami-Dade County in the express lanes, said Lewis S. "Mike" Eidson, one of the attorneys. “We don't know how many of those were lane-diving accidents.”

Eidson said that problems happened from the start. In 2008, he said, the plastic poles were about 20 feet apart, but FDOT reduced the gaps to 10 feet to make the delineators look more solid. Later, he added, workers reduced the gaps to five feet between poles.

“Each one of those poles in Dade County is replaced six to eight times a year,” he said. “They lose 600 of those poles a week.”

Ervin González, another attorney, said the toll express lanes are a source of revenue for the state.

“The government is making lots of money on the express lanes and they're putting profits over people and that's just wrong,” González said.

González said the recent move to replace the old flismy poles with sturdier ones will “help some,” but that the real solution should be building concrete barriers to separate the express lanes from regular lanes or ending the express lanes.

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