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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