Fear and loathing on I-95

I love driv­ing on I-95 through North­east Philly. Noth­ing is so re­lax­ing as cas­u­ally glan­cing at your mir­ror and be­ing freaked by the massive head­lights of a scream­ing 16-wheel­er that’s six inches off your bump­er, push­ing you to do 70, 75, and then the truck­er mer­ci­fully blows right by you, the back of his trail­er tagged with one of those signs that ask, “How’s My Driv­ing?”

I tend to pon­der many per­plex­ing ques­tions about life. How did we get here? What does Demi Moore see in Ashton Kutcher that she wouldn’t see in me? But I don’t know that I’ll ever un­der­stand why so many idi­ot­ic drivers dis­rupt our lives on a four-mile stretch of I-95 in North­east Philly, a spe­cif­ic stretch roughly between the Academy Road and Bridge Street exits, both north­bound and south­bound.

Over the years I’ve had the joy of driv­ing most of this stor­ied, 1,907-mile-long in­ter­state, primar­ily on trips between Maine and Geor­gia. The Na­tion­al High­way Traffic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion has clas­si­fied the 382 miles through Flor­ida as the most dan­ger­ous on all of I-95, but I’ve nev­er driv­en I-95 in Flor­ida. There are enough mor­ons to put my life in jeop­ardy between Academy and Bridge.

Those of us who are con­tent to drive 5 miles per hour over the pos­ted speed lim­it shouldn’t give in to amphet­am­ine-jacked truck­ers, mo­tor­cyc­lists weav­ing across lanes like light­ning bolts, or clue­less clowns in beat-up Chevy Cava­liers, a drag­ging muffler spew­ing sparks as the fool rides along the right shoulder to pass you.

Over two dec­ades of driv­ing I-95 to the Times, I’ve built such a treas­ure chest of memor­ies. My acid re­flux still rages when I think about the guy in the Budget rent­al truck.

Two years ago on a steamy Au­gust morn­ing, I’m com­ing off the long Betsy Ross Bridge ramp, pre­par­ing to merge onto north­bound 95, when I sud­denly no­tice Budget guy is breath­ing down my bump­er.

I also no­tice the long, slow fu­ner­al pro­ces­sion that’s mov­ing up 95 and about to make things dicey. But Budget guy ap­par­ently doesn’t no­tice this. I start to brake, he starts to fish­tail, and sud­denly I’m faced with a snap de­cision. Pos­sibly get rear-ended by Budget guy or nudge my way in­to the fu­ner­al cara­van.

By my es­tim­ate, this made me the 19th car in the pro­ces­sion, be­hind Uncle Jude and Aunt Tess but in front of the Beas­leys. As I pulled out of the line to re­sume my trip, Uncle Jude scowled and waved an arm, like I was some rude, in­sens­it­ive fu­ner­al crash­er in a hurry, but I un­der­stood. You just nev­er know what’s go­ing to hap­pen on I-95.

Two weeks ago, a south­bound trip on Fri­day night at 10:30 was par­tic­u­larly event­ful. Near the Cottman Av­en­ue exit, the sud­den whine of over-revved en­gines erup­ted be­hind me as a pack of five mo­tor­cyc­lists, eas­ily do­ing 85, fanned out to weave through mov­ing traffic like ri­co­chet­ing bul­lets, the riders full of blind faith that there was noth­ing omin­ous on the dark road ahead that could flip their bikes in­to one hell of a gory crash.

But it didn’t take long to en­counter more stu­pid­ity. It came two minutes later at Bridge Street. A guy had missed the exit by about a hun­dred feet, so he figured he’d just back up on the very nar­row I-95 shoulder to take it. I was very dis­ap­poin­ted that I couldn’t stop right there to see if his bone­headed man­euver against the tide of heavy traffic and harsh head­lights had a happy end­ing.

This blos­som­ing era of cell phones and tex­ting while driv­ing, of course, really ex­pands the pos­sib­il­it­ies, yet I think it’ll be hard to sur­pass the all-time-dumbest epis­ode I’ve seen that has stood the test of time for, oh, at least 15 years now. That was the fool who was trav­el­ing north­bound near Cottman Av­en­ue when he lost a storm door tied to the roof of his white car — and stopped dead in the lane, got out of his vehicle and tried to re­trieve the shattered met­al door as car brakes squealed around him.

I-95 no doubt has a long his­tory of this bril­liance. Con­struc­tion of the glor­i­ous 58-mile seg­ment in Pennsylvania com­menced in 1960 and con­cluded about 25 years later down near the air­port, at a total cost of about $500 mil­lion. But as most of us know, I-95 has seen bet­ter days. Flour­ish­ing de­vel­op­ment has brought more traffic over the years, along with re­lent­less waves of daily com­muters mak­ing their way to a more con­tem­por­ary down­town, and all this con­ges­tion and wear have com­pelled PennDOT to un­der­take a multi-phase im­prove­ment and re­pair pro­ject — much of it here in North­east Philly — that might be done around the time we start send­ing colon­ies to civ­il­ize Jupiter.

Those PennDOT guys do work pretty hard. They kicked butt clear­ing I-95 dur­ing last winter’s snowstorms. I have to say, however, that I’ll nev­er un­der­stand why PennDOT “rov­ing crews” ex­ist, oth­er than to make us miser­able for the thrill of it. You’re cruis­ing along just fine on 95. But then you de­tect a sea of red brake lights ahead, and you know this is go­ing to be ag­grav­at­ing, and sure enough you’re trapped in a massive backup that moves two feet every 10 minutes, a backup that the KYW traffic Jam-Cam is totally clue­less about yet again, and you won­der … is it an ac­ci­dent? … a broken-down vehicle? … did a tiny pickup truck lose its load of 6,000 wood pal­lets stacked four stor­ies high?

And fi­nally you know. It’s a rov­ing PennDOT crew, three big trucks parked side by side, each moun­ted with flash­ing dir­ec­tion­al ar­rows, and they’re for­cing four lanes of traffic in­to one. God knows why. The crew, you see, isn’t rov­ing. They’re just sit­ting. In the trucks. And they’re sit­ting in the trucks do­ing noth­ing. In fact, get past this gaunt­let and traffic flows once again.

Per­son­ally, I think I-95 is so nuts that even the cops don’t like be­ing on it. I nev­er see them much. One night in Feb­ru­ary I was go­ing south on 95 and a car up ahead entered the high­way at Academy Road. It was a beat-up little ma­roon car — with no lights. No head­lights, no tail­lights … I mean, no lights … just a dark little death mis­sile mov­ing along the cen­ter lane of a dark in­ter­state at 65 mph. Now and then a mo­tor­ist flashed high beams or honked at the guy, but the little ma­roon death mis­sile just kept go­ing and go­ing and go­ing. With no lights.

I just had to see if he’d be bus­ted. So I stuck with him from Academy Road un­til I de­cided to bail at the Walt Whit­man Bridge exit in South Philly, with no sign of the law at all, and the little ma­roon death mis­sile kept rid­ing in­to the night.

This flab­ber­gas­ted me. It prob­ably shouldn’t have. What I’m real­iz­ing is that the ab­nor­mal just keeps get­ting so nor­mal on I-95. •• 

John Scan­lon is ed­it­or of the North­east Times. He can be reached at js­can­lon@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jscanlon@bsmphilly.com.

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