Commonwealth Chronicle

Online News Coverage of Central and Southwest Virginia

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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.

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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: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewbain/ / 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)