Attacks on vehicles prompt AAA warning to avoid Jacksonville, Fla., bypass

November 05, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On the eve of the winter tourist season, the American Automobile Association has issued an unprecedented safety warning to motorists: Steer clear of Jacksonville's sniper-plagued Interstate 295.

The warning, which state officials support but fear will be detrimental to Florida's image among tourists, comes five months into a perplexing series of highway attacks along I-295 and its feeder roads.

The highway is one of Florida's busiest gateways, carrying about 80,000 vehicles daily, and is regarded as the No. 1 tourist route into the state. Since July, 19 vehicles have been hit with gunfire, bricks or concrete chunks along or near the bypass, which forms a crescent west of Jacksonville.

One man was killed when a chunk of concrete smashed through hTC a window and hit him in the face. Another motorist was seriously hurt when she was shot in the jaw.

There have been three such attacks in the Jacksonville area in the past two weeks, but investigators don't think all of the incidents are related.

Police have been unable to catch the attackers, and fear has changed some motorists' driving patterns to the point that they take much longer and more time-consuming routes to avoid I-295.

County Sheriff Jim McMillan's department has invested more than 1,100 staff hours in surveillance, increased patrols and investigation.

"There is definitely not one monster out there behind all of this," Sheriff McMillan said. "We've either got one group using different weapons, or different groups or just different people. We also think we've got copycats."

Police have found evidence of at least two sizes of weapons, .22 caliber and 9mm. Attackers have thrown rocks, bricks, chunks of concrete and whole concrete blocks.

Even the state's visitor information center on Interstate 95 near the Georgia border will warn motorists to avoid I-295.

"Fortunately, most tourists travel during the day and these incidents have happened during the night," said April Herrle, spokeswoman for the state Commerce Department.

Since September, travel counselors for the 33 million-member AAA have been warning members not to pull off the road near any I-295 overpass at night. Now the association has upgraded the warnings.

Effective immediately, the AAA Triptik service -- which makes maps for travelers -- will no longer route motorists on I-295. And travel counselors will warn drivers to use extreme caution on I-95, the alternate and more crowded route through urban Jacksonville, especially at night.

The AAA has never taken such a step before, not even during the attacks on motorists along I-95 in Dade County, Fla., in the mid-1980s.

"This is the first time in our 90-year-history that we've issued a warning to motorists because of acts of violence on a highway," said Tom Schroder, spokesman for the Florida branch of the AAA.

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