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Alcohol and Sexual Behavior: A Risk Mix

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Washington and Lee senior Lucy Hundley knows firsthand how excessive alcohol use can lead to sexual misconduct. When she was a first-year, Hundley said, she got so drunk with her friends at a fraternity party that she failed to notice that everyone except a senior man left the room.

“And all of the sudden he jumped on top of me and started making out with me,” she said. “He kind of had his tongue in my mouth, and it was really gross. I just started saying, ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ and he wouldn’t get off of me.”

Hundley said she freed herself by tickling him, and ran out of the room. Now a resident advisor, or R.A., for first-year women living at the Gilliam residence hall, she said she worries that other female residents will experience sexual misconduct.

It is not uncommon for teenage alcohol abuse to lead to something more unfortunate like sexual abuse.

W&L first admitted women almost 25 years ago, but gender relations on campus remain far from perfect. In rural Lexington, Va., much of W&L’s social scene revolves around off-campus parties on Windfall Hill – a cul-de-sac of houses about two miles from the university where upper-class fraternity men live.

The excessive drinking that occurs at these houses often leads to risky behavior that faculty, administrators and health officials describe as sexual misconduct. University health officials have struggled to quantify how often inappropriate sexual behavior occurs—and what to do about it.

“Alcohol is often a factor in sexual assault because it affects people’s decision-making and perception of dangerous situations,” said Dr. Jane Horton, W&L’s director of Student Health. “There’s a lot of miscommunication here.”

Since 2001 W&L health officials have surveyed students about their sexual behavior and alcohol use. In recent years the survey has been refined, partly because of suspicions about the accuracy of the numbers.

Since 2004 health officials have requested that all W&L undergraduates participate in an online, anonymous survey. School health officials said the response rate has been high and survey respondents have accurately represented university demographics, based on gender, participation in Greek life, and socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

In 2009 the health survey revealed that 20 percent of the 341 women who responded to the questionnaire said they’ve been taken advantage of sexually after drinking alcohol. The 341 female respondents represent 39 percent of undergraduate women.

Until now, W&L health officials limited release of the survey’s results to select student and faculty groups. Dawn Watkins, dean of student affairs, said she and other administrators feared the numbers would be taken out of context.

But the Rockbridge Report recently obtained a copy of the questionnaire data, which Horton believes accurately capture students’ experiences with alcohol and sexual misconduct.

About 18 percent of the survey’s female respondents said they’ve experienced rape or attempted rape – a figure that is two times the national college average for sexual assault, said Horton.

But what is rape? That question is at the center of the debate about sexual assault at W&L, mainly because consent is a key component of rape. Legally, rape is defined as “the crime of sexual intercourse without consent and accomplished through force, threat of violence or intimidation.”

The W&L survey defines rape as “sexual penetration against [someone’s] will.”

When alcohol is involved, it becomes difficult to determine whether a woman has given, or is capable of giving, consent—and whether the man is sober enough to understand what she’s said.

Off-campus parties: Where men and women meet

Some W&L students and faculty members blame binge drinking at off-campus parties at Windfall and the nearby Pole Houses for sexual misconduct and strained gender relations.

“Most of the interactions between men and women occur at parties where there is a lot of alcohol involved,” said Melina Bell, a professor of philosophy.

Further complicating the issue is that students say they choose to attend W&L because of its reputation for binge-drinking—which the university defines as five or more alcoholic drinks in the same night for a man and four or more for a woman. Jan Kaufman, director of Student Health Promotions, said such high-risk behavior often leads to inappropriate sexual contact.

Hundley, who spends much of her time as an RA talking to female dorm residents about drinking and sexual misconduct, said first-year students are often excited about getting drunk at parties but understand little about the consequences.

“First-years have this overwhelming perception of drinking as something that people do every night,” she said.

She also said there’s a lot of pressure on first-year women to drink to impress male students, their sorority sisters and other women on campus.

About 90 percent of W&L students join fraternities and sororities – another key aspect of the university’s social scene that some faculty and students say exacerbates the problem. The fraternities usually provide the alcohol at off-campus parties, where, Bell said, she thinks the male-dominated atmosphere overwhelms women and pressures men to prove their “manhood.”

“Socialization takes place on male territory. It all happens under the control of men,” she said. “There’s this social pressure among men to ‘get it’ or take advantage of women who have been drinking.”

Hundley said first-year residents don’t believe that they’re in danger when they go out to the parties.

“[Women] don’t expect men to behave badly around them,” she said.

Garrott McClintock, president of the Interfraternity Council, said men and women make bad judgment calls when they’re intoxicated, but he doesn’t think the Greek system is to blame.

“We don’t think about it like that,” he said. “I think we just throw a lot of parties in general where everyone can come.”

Still, McClintock said, he’s worried about sexual misconduct at W&L. “We have a problem with people not knowing how to handle sex and alcohol in the same setting,” he said. “Gender relations can always be worked on.”

Under review: The Student Faculty Hearing Board

Each year two to three women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted go to the Student Health Center for treatment, Horton said.

But those women rarely go to the police to press criminal charges or report the assault to the Student Faculty Hearing Board, a quasi-judicial university committee that decides whether to punish students accused of sexual misconduct. Sanctions range from community service to expulsion.

Students and faculty members also blame W&L’s historically male-dominated culture for the lack of reporting.

“A lot of times here, people are reluctant to name someone and bring charges against someone because of the fear of, basically, social ostracism,” Horton said.

This term, W&L President Kenneth Ruscio appointed a committee to review the hearing procedures after a controversial SFHB decision that Hundley said reinforced the belief among some women on campus that they shouldn’t speak up about sexual assault, especially if alcohol is involved.

Last year, when a female student brought a sexual assault complaint to the hearing board, the committee found the accused male student responsible for exploiting the woman’s drunkenness in order to “physically and emotionally abuse” her, according to the SFHB’s decision.

But the male student was not suspended or expelled from W&L. Instead the board ordered him to perform 150 hours of community service, working with abused women at a local clinic.

Hundley said she and others were outraged at the decision.

“In its current form, the SFHB has lost all credibility,” she said. “Basically it’s a failure.”

Ruscio has asked the review committee to conclude its examination of the hearing board’s procedures by the end of this term and release final recommendations at the start of Winter term classes.

The omen of ‘O’ Week

Binge drinking at off-campus parties starts the week before classes begin, when first-year students attend information sessions as part of the university’s orientation program. Kaufman said participation in off-campus partying becomes ingrained in first-year students that week.

During Orientation Week, first-years must attend mandatory meetings about academic life, the W&L honor code and the dangers of drinking and sexual assault. The Student Affairs Office schedules the sessions from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. to try to discourage first-year students from going off-campus to party.

But after 10 p.m., upperclass students show up outside of the dorms in their cars, waiting to ferry first-years to parties at off-campus houses like Windfall, Pumptown and the Pole Houses.

“We can’t control, as a Student Affairs staff, what cars line up out there and take students away,” Watkins said.

This year, Hundley said, all of the first-year women in her dorm went out almost every night of Orientation Week—even after the first night when she hosted a hall meeting to warn the residents about the risks of drinking at off-campus parties.

That night, Hundley said, she took one of her residents to the Student Health Center because the woman was so drunk she couldn’t talk coherently when she returned to the dorm at 2 a.m.

“It’s a really dangerous time to be a first-year student,” Hundley said, referring to the first night of Orientation Week. “We haven’t had any of the programming about drinking, any of the programming about sexual assault, and [first-year women] are already being put in pretty dangerous situations.”

‘Traveller’ trouble

The high-risk, off-campus drinking continues throughout the school year. And in a city like Lexington, which has no public transportation to accommodate 50 percent of W&L students living off-campus, a university safe-ride program is a necessity, said Watkins.

Since 2004 the university has offered buses and vans known as Traveller to provide transportation to and from the parties. Some members of the W&L and Lexington communities criticize the program as a university “taxi service” that encourages and excuses irresponsible drinking in dangerous social situations.

“I think [Traveller] does encourage underage drinking because now [W&L students] can get a ride home or back to the Pole Houses or wherever they live,” said Lexington Police Chief Steve Crowder.

But Crowder also credits Traveller for the decline in drunk driving arrests in Lexington to 48 in 2008 from 56 in 2005.

Both Crowder and Watkins said that, without Traveller, they fear more students would get behind the wheel and drive drunk.

“If I have to make a choice between enabling, which I wouldn’t agree is occurring, but if I had to make a choice between enabling bad behavior or seeing people die, I’m going to choose the former,” Watkins said.

Professional drivers operate Traveller’s two large buses that run from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The university also hires student drivers who must pass a driving test to operate the smaller sedans and vans for people who call and request rides. The dispatch service is available any night of the week until 2 a.m.

In October the Traveller system fell under more scrutiny than usual after one of the buses struck a W&L sophomore woman as it pulled away from an off-campus party. The female student was hospitalized with a fractured left hip but plans to return to school in the Winter term after her recovery. The driver was not charged.

For some, the accident highlighted the problems with the safe ride system and dangers of high-risk drinking at off-campus parties.

“[Traveller] very much facilitates students not having to accept personal responsibility for getting themselves home from parties,” Kaufman said.

Raising awareness

This term students and faculty groups on campus are working to shine a spotlight on sexual assault, including a group of 11 W&L women who are enrolled in a women and gender studies class designed by Bell. The first class of its kind at W&L, the group hopes to end sexual misconduct at the university by 2030. At a Dec. 9 campus forum, the women plan to present suggestions on how achieve that goal.

“In particular, we’re trying to [raise awareness] about what a good sexual assault policy at W&L should look like,” Bell said.

Bell’s students put up flyers around campus, polled students and faculty about sexual assault and wrote editorials in the school newspaper to bring attention to the issue.

Other university officials say female students need to take a more active role in setting the social tone on campus. “I’d like to see more women take more leadership,” Kaufman said. “Right now, women aren’t really exercising their voices.”

Watkins also said women need to speak up more frequently about sexual misconduct and get more involved in W&L student government.

“Women students…just don’t want to put themselves ‘out there,’ ” she said. “That concerns me. What is it that’s ‘out there’ that our women students don’t want to experience that our male students don’t seem to be concerned about?”

Excessive drinking linked to high sexual assault rate, study shows

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A 2009 anonymous health survey given to Washington and Lee undergraduates shows that about 18 percent of female respondents have experienced rape or attempted rape. That’s two times the national college average for sexual assault, says Dr. Jane Horton, Washington and Lee’s director of student health. The report shows that 39 percent of undergraduate women attending Washington and Lee responded to the survey- 341 women in total.

“We feel comfortable that our survey is representative of our students’ experience here,” said Horton.

Commonwealth Chronicle reporter Cameron Steele takes an in-depth look at sexual assault at Washington and Lee as part of an on-going investigation about gender relations on local college campuses. To watch the package and hear Steele speak on the Rockbridge Report broadcast about her in-depth series about gender relations and sexual assault at local colleges, click the video below.

Tapas restaurant, wine bar to open in Lexington, Va

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The lingering financial crisis hasn’t stopped one Lexington man from opening shop. Commonwealth Chronicle Reporter Cameron Steele sat down with the owner of Brix°, the newest local restaurant to bring you the latest on night life in Lexington, Va.

Click the video below to watch.

VMI cadet pleads guilty to sexual battery, won’t serve jail time

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Stephen Lloyd (Copyright 2009 Rockbridge County Jail)

Stephen Lloyd (Copyright 2009 Rockbridge County Jail)

By Cameron Steele

A former Virginia Military Institute cadet who faced a jury trial on felony rape and sodomy charges pleaded guilty Tuesday to a lesser charge of sexual battery.

Stephen Lloyd, 22, won’t face sentencing on the misdemeanor conviction for three years. If he stays out of trouble, he most likely won’t serve any jail time, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Bucky Joyce.

The misdemeanor sexual battery charge and delayed sentencing are part of a plea agreement that Rockbridge County Circuit Judge Michael Irvine accepted at a hearing on the eve of Lloyd’s jury trial, which was supposed to start Wednesday.

“We all feel [the plea agreement] is a good conclusion to the case because no one is completely happy with it,” Joyce told the judge.

Lloyd’s guilty plea was a so-called “Alford” plea, meaning that he did not admit guilt for all aspects of the crime. Instead, the plea means that Lloyd accepts that there is enough evidence to convict him if the case went to trial.

The case began last March when a female cadet at VMI accused Lloyd of raping and sodomizing her. At the time, Lloyd was a cadet at VMI.

Plea negotiations between Joyce and Lloyd’s defense attorneys began late Monday night and resumed Tuesday morning, continuing until almost 4 p.m., when the two sides told Irvine they had reached an agreement.

Joyce said the female cadet was consulted throughout the negotiation process. She decided to accept a plea agreement because she realized “what a tough case it would be,” he said in an interview.

On the morning of March 29, the female cadet, 21, reported to the VMI infirmary that she had been sexually assaulted by Lloyd. She later repeated her accusations to VMI police and was taken to Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital for a physical examination. As part of its protocol, VMI alerted Project Horizon, a Lexington-based agency that counsels cadets and others who report assaults.

Joyce told the judge that the female cadet took a few days to consider whether to press charges against Lloyd. She decided to pursue the charges, and Lloyd was arrested on April 1. A grand jury indicted Lloyd on rape and sodomy charges in July.

In an interview after Tuesday’s hearing, Joyce said he was torn about whether the evidence was strong enough to prosecute the case.

“This has been the most difficult case I’ve been involved in,” he said. “She maintained all along she’d been assaulted, but the corroborating evidence all along was weak.”

Joyce said that while scientific analysis of a swab taken from the female cadet’s neck suggested the presence of Lloyd’s DNA, no other swabs taken from anywhere on her body matched Lloyd.

Before the assault, she also had had an intimate relationship with Lloyd and had been drinking alcohol on that night — key facts that weakened the prosecution’s case, Joyce said.

“Basically, it all comes down to her testimony,” the prosecutor said during the hearing.

Joyce said his evidence would have shown:

On the night of March 28, the female cadet went to bed at about 10:30 p.m. in her barracks room, which she shared with two other cadets. A couple of hours later, Lloyd came into the room and woke her. He also sent two text messages to her cell phone, but the female cadet didn’t get the messages until later.

Lloyd asked her to smoke a cigarette with him outside the barracks, and she agreed. On their way back inside, Lloyd kissed her outside the trunk room, a basement area where cadets store their luggage. She kissed him back.

Joyce said it was unclear whether the female cadet entered the trunk room willingly.

For the next 45 minutes, the prosecutor said, Lloyd performed various “sex acts” on the female cadet against her will.

As Joyce summarized what she would have testified, the female cadet began to cry. The court bailiff handed her a box of tissues. Two of her friends, a woman and the male cadet who first convinced her to go to the infirmary after the assault, sat on either side of her and patted her shoulders.

Lloyd kept his eyes on the judge throughout the hearing. He wore a navy suit and spoke only when the judge asked him questions, answering “yes sir.”

When Joyce finished summarizing the evidence, he said the misdemeanor sexual battery charge and three-year sentencing delay were a sufficient compromise in the case.

Cary Bowen, one of Lloyd’s defense attorneys, said in court that they were ready for trial.

“We had many witnesses,” he said. “It would be hotly contested whether it [the sexual acts] was consensual or not.”

Joyce said Lloyd was dismissed from VMI after the charges were filed and did not graduate. In an interview, Lloyd said he lives in Mason Neck. He said he plans to move to Richmond to work as a helicopter mechanic and take flight lessons to become a pilot.

The female cadet returned to VMI this fall to finish her senior year. After the hearing, she rushed out of the courtroom with her two friends and could not be stopped to comment.

Virginia Military Institute rape case scheduled for trial Oct. 14

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A former VMI cadet faces a jury trial on rape and sodomy charges. Stephen Lloyd, 21, will go to court on Oct. 14. Virginia Voice reporter Cameron Steele has more from Lexington, Va.

Video: Sharing the road

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From Cameron’s blog:

Below is an in-depth broadcast piece on the dangers of Interstate 81 in Virginia that I created last spring.

I-81 used to be a state-of-the-art expressway in the 1960s, but now there’s an average of 20,000 trucks traveling  the road per day. High truck traffic, mountainous terrains and closed rest stops make I-81 one of the deadliest interstates, according to the Virginia Transportation Research Council. One family from Atlanta, Georgia understands the dangers of I-81 all too well.

Dense truck traffic, dangerous landscape raise I-81 safety concerns (Part Four)

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Searching for safety: The rest stop controversy

For Clyde Huffman, a West Virginia trucker who has been hauling on I-81 for almost 40 years, one of the newest highway hazards is finding a place to rest at night.


The Winchester area is one of the busiest hubs on the Virginia sector of Interstate 81.

Since 2005, long-haul truckers have been required by federal law to rest 10 hours every day. That means they need to find a place to park so they can sleep in the bunks their cabs are outfitted with.

Huffman said he likes the new regulations because they help to reduce fatigue, but they have created more competition for parking spaces. Also, the number of trucks on the road has quadrupled since he started driving in 1976. Available truck parking hasn’t kept up with the demand, said Huffman, who chose life behind the wheel to avoid the West Virginia mines.

“The biggest problem … right now is parking for trucks,” Huffman said. “There is nowhere to park.”

And unfortunately for Huffman, who tries to make it home every weekend to see his 17-month-old granddaughter, the parking problem is about to get worse.

VDOT has decided to close 19 of 41 of its public safety rest areas in a balancing act to attempt to fix a $2.6 billion budget shortfall. Eight of those rest areas set to close are on I-81.

Jeff Caldwell, VDOT chief of communications, said that originally VDOT planned to shut down 25 of its rest areas in order to give the department a large portion of the $15 million it is obligated to cut from its services operation budget – money VDOT uses for roadway maintenance such as mowing, replacing signs and staffing the rest areas.

“It has been one of the most controversial cuts we’ve been looking at,” said Caldwell. In a press release, he said VDOT’s decision to continue to operate six of the rest areas originally slated to close was a compromise between its plans and the concerns of truckers, localities and commuters along its interstates. Four of the 12 rest areas that just barely missed the chopping block are on I-81.

Huffman said that good parking spaces are a necessity now more than ever since the federal regulations changed. But in Virginia especially, Huffman said, parking spaces – private truck stops and public rest areas – simply aren’t there. To further handicap a trucker’s chances of finding a safe place to rest on I-81 is dangerous and just “plain crazy,” said Huffman.

Steve Owings said he’s on the side of the truckers.

“There are nowhere near enough places already for them to rest, and the fact that Virginia is closing the existing places is just a travesty.

“We actually have the truck drivers’ situation foremost in our minds … because frankly, the situation we’ve got now is not only unsafe, it’s immoral,” Owings said.

Caldwell argued that the Commonwealth’s rest areas serve as only 10 percent of available truck parking throughout the state. The real problem, he said, lies in the private sector and lack of parking spaces there. And the proposed closings – which will most likely be passed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in July – are just a small portion of the sacrifices that the bad economy has forced VDOT to make.

VDOT has held numerous public hearings in localities along I-81. Caldwell said those hearings helped the department assess public opinion about the proposed cuts, including the closing of the rest areas. He received enough feedback from the hearings to fill two file cabinets, he said, and VDOT has reviewed all of the comments it has received.

“This resulted in some changes, which allow us to reach our financial targets while meeting our customers’ most critical needs,” said VDOT Commissioner David Ekern in the same press release.

But even with the revised plan, there will be only six rest areas along the length of the corridor’s 325 miles. Caldwell said there isn’t anywhere else for VDOT to cut funds.

“We have already laid off 20 percent of our work force,” said Caldwell. “Short of that, we don’t know where else to get the money.” Still, Caldwell said, he is trying to help find some respite for the truckers.

Huffman hasn’t seen any respite yet. He says he doesn’t even stop at rest areas along I-81 anymore because he knows he will be fined because of the two-hour limit the state has put on parking. That means truckers like Huffman often resort to considerably more risky parking spots, like Interstate exit ramps.

But you get fined for parking on those too, he said. State troopers wake truckers up all the time to tell them to move on from the rest areas or exit ramps. But that means Huffman and his fellow truckers have to make a dangerous choice: obey the state parking law, or the federal rest time?

And Virginia state police, Huffman said, are not sympathetic.

“You’re told that you need to plan your route better, and to go on through their state,” he said.  “You know, I mean when there’s no parking, there is no parking,”

Darrell Lewis, a trucker who has spent his time on the road hauling gas and hazardous materials, said that he has had many run-ins with state police while parking on I-81 exit ramps.

“I’ve been woken up… at two o’clock in the morning, out on a ramp, not hurting anybody,” Lewis said. “[They say] ‘You’re breaking the law, you gotta go.’ ‘Well, where do I go?’ ‘I don’t know but you can’t stay here.’”

Sgt. Robert Carpentieri, public information officer for the State Police, Salem district, said that in his 20 years as a state trooper he has never asked a trucker to leave a rest area, even if his two-hour hourglass has run out. But when he comes across a truck parked on an exit ramp or along the side of I-81, his duty to enforce safety overrides his compassion.

“If they’re parked on the emergency shoulder and there’s ‘No Parking’ signs we ask them to leave because that creates a traffic hazard,” Carpentieri said.

Carpentieri acknowledged that even without the closing of the rest stops, there just isn’t enough parking for the 40 percent truck traffic that makes up the corridor’s total on an average day.

“I would just say that there probably is not enough parking in truck stops or rest areas for the amount of traffic, truck traffic we have coming through here,” he said.

But Bobby Berkstresser, owner of Lee-Hi, a private truck stop in Rockbridge County, said he thinks the need for more parking is minimal. Lee-Hi, which has 300 parking spaces, and other private truck stops can handle the parking demand, Berkstresser said.

Teresa Fisk, general manager of private truck stop White's, thinks there is enough parking in the private sector for trucks traveling on I-81. (HELEN COUPE/The Rockbridge Report)

Teresa Fisk, general manager of private truck stop White's, thinks there is enough parking in the private sector for trucks traveling on I-81. (HELEN COUPE/The Rockbridge Report)

“There’s some nights you might have to look [for parking.],”said Berkstresser. “But the private sector has always shown that, in fact, if the business is out there, we’re more than willing to increase the number of parking spots that would be available.”

Others have been clamoring for the commercialization of the rest areas VDOT plans to close as a potential solution to I-81’s parking shortcomings.

Cline said that the privatization proposal is one that he’s heard tossed around a lot. The problem is that it breaks federal law. The law was originally put in place to protect local business communities on and around the interstate by forbidding the private sector to invest in or benefit from public exits. But Cline said he still thinks that the privatization of rest areas should be studied.

Caldwell is on board with exploring commercialization options, too. He said that the Commonwealth Transportation Board petitioned the federal government in March to try to get some dispensation from the law.

But for now, the closing of rest areas on the clogged corridor looms large, and truckers like Huffman and Lewis won’t be seeing any new parking perks. That puts truckers – and the other drivers with whom they share the road – in danger.

“You’re going to find trucks all over the ramps, which is supposed to be illegal anyway,” Lewis predicted. “It’s going to be a problem.”

Searching for safety: Distant decisions

Safety and road design problems facing I-81 won’t be solved only by rumble strips and wider shoulders. Suggestions for long-term improvements have run the gamut – from a big-name consortium’s failed proposal to widen the interstate to a grassroots organization’s clamoring for a rail solution.

But for now, VDOT can afford only the quick fix. Steve Owings said he and others with I-81 agendas hope the highway bill in September will provide the dollars needed to establish longer-lasting solutions.

“We’ve got this once every six years legislative opportunity,” said Owings.

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC 2.0

Written by Cameron Steele

August 20, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Dense truck traffic, dangerous landscape raise I-81 safety concerns (Part Three)

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Searching for safety: Short-term solutions?

In 2002, Steve Owings and his wife Susan made their way up the corridor only a few months after Cullum’s death. On their way to visit Pierce at W&L, they were shocked and sickened at the congestion and the speed with which vehicles flew past them.

Owings knew something had to change. In 2003, after the resolution of the criminal case against the man who hit his sons’ car, Owings founded Road Safe America, a research and advocacy group promoting safer interstate driving. Since then, the Owings family has worked tirelessly to spread their message through speeches, collaboration with the American Trucking Associations and the Road Safe America Web site.

The top, shared priority of Road Safe America and the ATA is to limit the speed that tractor-trailers can drive by requiring the use of speed governors. All trucks are required to have the regulators, but most trucking companies do not require their drivers to program them.

Owings said he thinks limiting a truck’s top speed to 65 mph is essential to make I-81 – and all interstates – safer.
“An 80,000-pound vehicle traveling just 60 mph has the force of the average car going over 300 mph,” he said.

He said that Road Safe America and the ATA have pursued mandatory programming of speed governors through state departments of transportation for years. But their best hope might lie with Congress. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act – better known as the highway bill – is up for renewal in September. That’s the bill that is renewed every six years to authorize federal funding of all transportation in the United States. Owings hopes that the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress will support the speed governor proposal.

But Fontaine said that speed governors might not be as safe as Owings and the ATA suggest. Fontaine cites speed variance as a main crash cause on interstates like 81, and he thinks speed governors could create situations where tractor trailers act as “rolling road blocks.”

“I think you can’t really say that there should be a global blanket of 65 mph on the limiters,” said Fontaine. “Ideally, your safest mode of operation on the road is everybody’s driving about the same speed.”

Owings agrees that forcing trucks to drive at a slower speed in the right lane isn’t a quick fix. Ideally, he said, trucks and cars shouldn’t even share the same space. But for now, he’s lobbying for short-term solutions like the speed governors and adding a “sharing the road” program to driver education courses. The program would teach high school students how to drive around big trucks.

Del. Cline said part of his short-term safety solutions for I-81 includes those new driver education programs. But he thinks the best way to improve safety on the Interstate is stricter enforcement. He is trying to get money set aside in the General Assembly to put more troopers on patrol along I-81.

But it costs $100,000 to outfit one new trooper, Cline said.

VDOT is also working to put band-aids over some of I-81’s smaller safety wounds. Matt Shiley, a regional traffic engineer for VDOT, said that highway safety features like rumble strips, electronic message boards and the Highway Safety Corridor running through the Roanoke area of I-81 all improve safety day to day. The safety corridor, where speed limits are lower, is sometimes criticized for increasing area congestion. But it has helped bring the crash rate down, said Shiley.

Bridge and interstate redesign projects also help improve safety in the danger zones of I-81. In 2005, Buffalo Creek Bridge was one such project, put on the to-do list after the Owings tragedy. The bridge was rebuilt with wider shoulders, and a northbound truck climbing lane was added.

Visiting W&L for alumni weekends is always bittersweet, Pierce Owing said, partly because of the I-81 drive that will always haunt him.

“Is 81 a bad interstate? Absolutely,” he said. “In terms of the interstates I travel on, and you know I live in Atlanta – I travel on them every day – it’s one of the worst.” (to be continued)

Written by Cameron Steele

August 20, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Dense truck traffic, dangerous landscape raise I-81 safety concerns (Part Two)

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The safety hazards: congestion, climate, conditions

I-81’s status as Virginia’s most dangerous interstate raises the stakes for students who attend the 29 universities along its 325-mile corridor in the state.

In 2002, Cullum Owings, then a senior at W&L, was one of those student drivers. Steve Owings said he and his wife Susan had talked with their sons before they left about the dangers of sitting still on the Interstate.

“We talked about it that morning: ‘When you come to stopped traffic, which you undoubtedly will, try to leave enough space in front of your car so that you can maneuver and look in the rear view mirror,’” Owings recalled.

And Pierce said that’s exactly what Cullum tried to do when he noticed the 18 wheeler’s headlights barreling toward them. But everything happened too fast. Cullum had only managed to turn the 1992 Lexus just enough for the driver’s side to take the brunt of the impact.

“I couldn’t even get him out,” Pierce said. “Ambulance was there within 10 to 15 minutes; they couldn’t get him out either. They tried to back up the truck. And I think he died in my arms.”

Robert Foresman, Rockbridge County’s emergency management and hazardous materials coordinator for the past seven years, can spin off a laundry list of I-81’s trucking horror stories.

“In 1999 there was a major crash on the Buffalo Creek Bridge that involved 17 vehicles. We had 35 patients with four fatalities,” he began. That was only a mile or so from the site of Cullum Owings’ death.

That accident claimed the life of another student, freshman Jonathan Nabors.

As Rockbridge County’s emergency management coordinator, Foresman responds to any big rig accidents on the Interstate between mile markers 173 and 205.

Four people were killed in this 1999 accident that happened around the I-81 Buffalo Creek Bridge. The pile-up involved eight tractor-trailers and eight cars. (Photo: THE NEWS-GAZETTE)

Four people were killed in this 1999 accident that happened around the I-81 Buffalo Creek Bridge. The pile-up involved eight tractor-trailers and eight cars. (Photo: THE NEWS-GAZETTE)

“I think that the mountainous terrain, the way the road is banked and designed causes problems for drivers,” said Foresman.

Fontaine agrees. He said the high density of truck traffic on the interstate’s hilly terrain creates a huge inconsistency in the speeds that cars and trucks drive.In his research Fontaine found that trucks sometimes go as slow as 45 mph in the left lane as they go up hills, causing mile-long back-ups.

“Trucks have a disproportionate impact on the traffic flow along I-81, particularly when you get into these locations where you’ve got the hills and valleys going up and down the road,” Fontaine said.

That speed inconsistency is a major factor in I-81 crashes, he said.

And those are safety hazards that threaten everyone on the road. Virginia Delegate for the 24th District Ben Cline said many of his constituents worry about driving on I-81.

“Environmental concerns or congestion concerns or safety concerns: Everybody’s got some concern that relates to 81,” he said.

Jennifer Leech, a  Rockbridge County resident who is her father’s right-hand on the famiy’s third-generation dairy farm, said she is always nervous when she drives on I-81. She tries to avoid the cluttered lanes of the interstate if she can, opting instead to take the parallel US Route 11.

“Especially if I’m driving a truck with like a livestock trailer or something, I just stay on 11,” said Leech.

A 2006 graduate of Virginia Tech, she had to drive the 100-mile stretch of the Interstate between Lexington and Blacksburg every weekend when she was still in school.

Playing bumper cars with big trucks and careless passenger car drivers every weekend scared Leech. One Sunday morning, she said, she was run off the road into the median by a truck that was merging onto the interstate around Troutville, north of Roanoke.

“I guess he didn’t see me. I was in his blind spot, driving a little black car,” she said.

Leech found some areas, such as the Buffalo Creek Bridge near the site of Cullum Owings’ death and the exits surrounding Roanoke, were worse than others.

“If you went around work hours, around Roanoke, it got really, really busy and dangerous,” she said.  “You definitely had to pay attention to what you were doing.”

That sitting duck feeling is one Leech said she doesn’t want to experience again. Now she always speeds up when she is passing a truck on I-81.

Cline said there are many others just like Leech who refuse to drive on the corridor.

“So many folks from this area are scared to get on 81 anymore, they don’t even use it. They take (Route) 11 wherever they go,” he said. (to be continued)

Written by Cameron Steele

August 20, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Dense truck traffic, dangerous landscape raise I-81 safety concerns (Part One)

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Pierce Owings, left, spent most of his life following Cullum everywhere: to high school and then to college at Washington and Lee University, where he joined the same fraternity as Cullum, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. (Photo: STEVE OWINGS)

Pierce Owings, left, spent most of his life following Cullum everywhere: to high school and then to college at Washington and Lee University, where he joined the same fraternity as Cullum, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. (Photo: STEVE OWINGS)

This story was originally published here.

Pierce Owings lost his big brother and best friend on the same night. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2002, Cullum Owings died when a speeding tractor trailer rammed into his car on Interstate 81 a few miles from their destination.

Pierce, a passenger in the car, escaped from the accident virtually unscathed. He would be the only one to make it back to Washington and Lee University.

“It hit us like a freight train,” said Pierce, who after the crash looked over to find Cullum hunched beside him. At age 19, as he sat in the back of an ambulance on Interstate 81 near Lexington, Pierce had to call his parents and tell them their son, his brother, was gone.

“He was my best friend. I admired him,” said Pierce, now 25. “We were very close.”

Cullum Owings became another casualty on the list of 5,000 Americans who die every year in tractor-trailer-related crashes.

“That’s the equivalent of two airline crashes a month with everyone on board dying,” said Steve Owings, Pierce and Cullum’s father.

The trucker who caused the Owings’ crash was indicted on a charge of reckless driving, a criminal misdemeanor. He spent a month in jail, paid a $1500 fine and gave up his license for a year.

The steep grades and rocky bottoms of the truck-dense I-81 make it the deadliest of Virgnina’s five interstates, said Mike Fontaine, senior research scientist at the Virginia Transportation Research Council.

Last year, 22 of the almost 3,000 national fatal crashes involving big trucks happened on the Virginia corridor of I-81. Of the 65 fatal crashes on the corridor in the years 2005-2007, 25 of them involved at least one truck. That’s almost 40 percent of the fatal crashes during those three years.

On Interstate 95, which runs north-south through busy eastern Virginia, only 34 percent of fatal crashes involve at least one truck. And a mere 11 percent of Interstate 64’s fatal crashes involve a tractor trailer.

Fontaine, who provided those crash statistics, said that I-81 has the highest percentage of truck traffic in the Commonwealth. That’s a growing problem for an aging, four-lane interstate.

I-81 was built to accommodate 15 percent truck traffic during its 1960s heyday. Today, tractor-trailers are up to 40 percent of traffic. And passenger car congestion is growing fast, too, Fontaine said.

Traffic volume on most segments has more than tripled since 1975, according to Federal Highway Administration statistics. The steady traffic volume increase is due largely to the long-term economic expansion in industries and localities along the corridor.

And the deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, which made it easier for new truck companies to get started and truckers to get licensed, quadrupled the number of trucks on the road.

The multiplying numbers of cars and trucks traveling I-81 will inevitably increase the frequency and severity of crashes, said Fontaine.

“Congestion and crashes tend to be highly correlated with one another,” he said.

Worse, crashes that do occur on the mountainous interstate are notorious for their severity.
Since Cullum Owings’ death the Virginia Department of Transportation has spent $62.5 million in Rockbridge County alone on widening bridges and adding truck lanes.

But long-term solutions will be costly – estimates range up to $13 billion and could take more than a decade. The federal six-year spending plan for interstate highways is up for renewal this year, but big-ticket items such as adding more lanes to I-81 or providing the money necessary to move more freight to the railroad are not likely to be a part of the bill in a down economy.

And the almost $700 million in stimulus money VDOT has received can be used only for “shovel-ready” projects – projects that do not need extensive planning and can be implemented immediately.

Worse, budget-cutting measures planned in Virginia could mean less overnight parking for weary truckers looking to get off the road for some sleep. (to be continued)