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