The Dangerous 20 Bypass - Part 1: Bad reputation

It's the road a lot of people love to "fear" this time of year. The U.S. 20 Bypass has earned quite a notorious reputation for weather-related crashes, including another fatal accident just last week.

In our three part series, we try to find out if the dangerous conditions are simply the fault of the weather, or if the roadway itself is to blame.

It's hard to imagine a business that's closer to the Bypass than Great Lakes Heating and Air Conditioning.

Employee Melissa Simbeck is a true blue Bypass commuter.

"I've been riding the Bypass for at least eight years every day all day, and I've only had one accident, so I don't think that's too bad, " Melissa Simbeck says.

Officemate Melanie Rine is only a fair weather friend of the freeway.

"I use it every day unless it snows. If there's any kind of precipitation, freezing rain, any of that, I will not touch that Bypass," Melanie Rine admits.

Year after year after year, the Bypass seems to live up to its bad reputation.

"Two years ago, it was the winter months, conditions were treacherous. We had a call up at the Bypass, westbound lanes. We had 20 cars and three semis in about a mile stretch that were involved in accidents," recalls Chief John Van Bruaene, of the Penn Township Fire Department.

Van Bruaene has no choice in the matter. He is on the Bypass, like it or not -- more often than not -- when conditions are at their absolute worst.

"It's been icy enough where you could hardly walk on it, let alone drive on it," he admits.

Some 32,000 vehicles a day use the Bypass -- at least that's the case at the exit nearest to the Penn Township Fire Department on the Bremen Highway.

That's up nearly six percent from the traffic count taken in 2009, an increase of nearly 1,700 vehicles a day.

There were nearly twice as many weather-related collisions on the Bypass last year as there were just two years prior, according to statistics provided by the state of Indiana

The Bypass saw 76 collisions in 2014 compared to 41 in 2012.

Not surprisingly, nearly twice as much snow fell last year as was the case in 2012: 98.7 inches in 2014 compared to 54.6 inches two years ago.

"We're aware of the reputation of the roadway. We know there are some people out there who believe this roadway is unsafe," says INDOT spokesman Matt Deitchley.

"Ultimately, when you boil it down, we put more attention on the Bypass than we put on any other roadway in northwest Indiana. In INDOT's district, there's more plow trucks, there's more salt," Deitchley explains.

And yet you need look only as far back as last week to find yet another Bypass accident on a snowy day.

This one involved the loss of life.

"It's a very good road when its running like it should, but it's a killer in bad weather," explains Southwest Central Fire Territory Chief Dale Wedel.

"I'm not a person that is an advocate that there's some major design flaw up there. It's a roadway which is just like any roadway," argues Capt. Phil Trent of the South Bend P.D.

"There's nothing wrong with the roadway. It's engineered properly, that's not the issue. It's just its placement in terms of where the prevailing weather patterns kind of affect it," explains Asst. Chief bill Thompson of the St. Joseph County Police.

For instance, one section of the road runs north and south down from the state line. Another runs east and west to the Elkhart County line, so no matter which way the winds are coming from, drifting and blowing snow is likely to be a problem somewhere out there.

Also, there's a concrete barrier that runs down the middle of the road just about the entire length of the road. In some portions, that barrier is a lot closer to traffic than it is in others.

On Wednesday, we'll tell you just how much closer it is, and we'll see if that affects safety.