I-94 101: Why SW MI stretch is so dangerous

I-94
I-94 in southwest Michigan. (Jan. 3, 2018)


KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Wednesday was another rough day of driving on I-94 west of Kalamazoo. Several crashes forced Michigan State Police to shut down east and westbound lanes of the highway at various times throughout the day.

Driving along I-94 through Kalamazoo, Van Buren and Berrien counties, it didn’t take long to see why the stretch of highway has such a bad reputation: There were jackknifed semi-trucks, slide-offs and traffic backups as far as you can see. In Coloma Township in Berrien County, a police officer responding to a crash on I-94 when the cruiser he was in was hit by a semi that lost control. The officer sustained minor injuries.

Crashes are a common problem on I-94 in the winter. 1st Lt. Dale Hinz, the commander of MSP’s Paw Paw Post, said about 50 cars were involved in series of pileups and crashes on I-94 between Kalamazoo and Lawrence on New Year’s Eve.

“Van Buren County has the highest number of crashes per vehicle mile traveled,” Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson Nick Schirripa told 24 Hour News 8.

Schirripa said the poor conditions on I-94 in southwest Michigan have nothing to do with the road design itself.

“I think it boils down to two factors that we can’t control and nobody can really control,” he explained. “Weather and topography.”

MDOT recently completed a study of the I-94 corridor between the Michigan-Indiana state line to Jackson. It found there’s a 300-foot elevation gain between the state line and Jackson. Schirripa said 150 of those feet are gained between Mattawan and US-131.

The other factor, of course, is the weather.

“Certainly the weather plays a significant part,” 1st Lt. Hinz said. “We don’t see multivehicle crashes on I-94 in June.”

“Along the I-94 corridor, Van Buren County gets the highest total inches of snowfall every year, it has the highest number of snow and freezing rain events,” Schirripa said. “As the weather comes in, you get the cold wind, the snow blowing in. It hits the western face of that hill, essentially, and goes up and just kind of dumps colder air and more snow there than it does on the backside.”