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Deadly crashes on Interstate 81 causing concern for driver safety

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

Traffic moves along Interstate 81
Traffic moves along Interstate 81 northbound at exit 298 in Strasburg. Trucks make up a large part of traffic along the corridor. Rich Cooley/Daily

It's become a tragic pattern -- eight people dead in crashes with tractor-trailers on Interstate 81 in Shenandoah County in as many months.

The youngest victim was just a baby at 21 months. Her grandmother, 80, the oldest.

Late last month, truck driver Jose Alberto Sarmiento, 36, of Edinburg, Texas, was given a suspended jail sentence and lost his privilege to drive in Virginia for three years after pleading guilty in Shenandoah County Circuit Court to three counts of reckless driving in the November crash that killed 1-year-old Maggie Ryman, her brother, Ivan Ryman, 4, and their grandmother, Cordula Elma Lear.

The most recent crash, near Strasburg on July 23, killed two brothers in their 20s from Texas who were on their way to visit their parents in Maryland. No charges have yet been filed against the tractor-trailer driver who smashed into the back of their Honda as they sat in traffic from a backup caused by an earlier truck crash in Middletown, pushing the small car under another tractor-trailer and igniting an inferno.

In between the November and July crashes, two men from Edinburg, Ramiro Vicente-Ajtun, 35, and Hilario Goux Vicente, 27, and Dennis Lavelle Fayne, 50, of Brighton, Tenn., were killed in a fiery crash after a tractor-trailer rear-ended the Edinburg men's car when they slowed for a crash that involved two other tractor-trailers. Fayne was a passenger in one of the trucks.

In the hours before and after the July 23 fatal crash, there were four other crashes -- including the Middletown incident -- in a 15-mile area, all of them involving tractor-trailers.

Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. Gary Peebles said the recent spate of fatalities "is obviously a concern."

"There have been occasional [fatal crashes], but this has kind of been a rough period through there, and it's been unusual," he said. "Not that we haven't had major crashes. The number of people that were killed has been unusual compared to what has happened over the past few years to my experience.

"I don't know if there's any particular reason you can attribute to. Nearly every case it has been inattentiveness of drivers, a little bit of weather mixed in, too."

There was a snow squall prior to the Sarmiento crash, Peebles said, and it was foggy when Vicente-Atjun, Vicente and Fayne were killed.

"First had snow squalls," Peebles said. "Then we have one inattentive truck driver who didn't take the defensive driving action he should've taken by slowing down when he went into that kind of squall, and I guess made the assumption that things were OK. As other traffic slowed down, he ended up starting a big mess.

"Back in April, real foggy night, you had a truck driver that slowed down due to the fog, another truck driver who didn't slow down enough hit that truck."

Fayne got out of one of the tractor-trailers, and the car carrying Vicente-Ajtun and Vicente "properly slowed as necessary. Another truck came along and struck that passenger car."

"Then, the one that was [July 23], that was unfortunate," Peebles said. "I don't think you could attribute that to weather. All of these crashes that have happened have been [a case where] for one reason or another, traffic has had to slow down and someone who's not paying enough attention -- that happens quite frequently with cars, too, but you don't have this amount of devastation with a car.

"Just the size of the trucks, the number of trucks that were involved, the amount of devastation increases dramatically."

With so many tractor-trailers going up and down I-81, it's hard for a crash not to involve them, Peebles said.

According to Matt Shiley, a VDOT regional traffic engineer, tractor-trailers make up about one-quarter of the average daily traffic on I-81 in Shenandoah County. The proportion of trucks will vary depending on the time of day, VDOT regional operations director Dean Gustafson added. For instance, there is a higher percentage of trucks on the roads at night since passenger vehicle traffic is lower then, he said.

The number of highway deaths has spurred Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, and Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter to request that the Virginia Department of Transportation designate Shenandoah County's portion of the interstate a highway safety corridor, which calls for increased fines for speeding and criminal traffic violations.

Carter has scheduled more speed-enforcement details on the highway for his deputies, and Gilbert has asked the state police to step up enforcement on I-81 specifically related to tractor-trailer speed and safety.

"I certainly don't expect them to maintain the same presence that they maintain during their special operations ... but, if they're going to be out there and they're going to be doing enforcement, perhaps they can ensure that the troopers are in spots where these things are most likely to occur and where we really need to slow -- especially the trucks -- down," Gilbert said recently. "I have definitely taken renewed interest in what's going on on Interstate 81 because it has been a terrible year. We need to make sure that people are safe. The quickest and most efficient way to address some of the safety issues out there is step up enforcement by state police."

State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty plans to meet with Gilbert and discuss his request, state police spokesman Deborah Cox said. VDOT spokesman Jeffrey Caldwell said the department doesn't yet have a formal response to the request.

Peebles encouraged motorists -- those driving passenger vehicles and those driving big trucks alike -- to refrain from tailgating.

"That would be a major improvement if we could get everybody out of the habit of following too closely," Peebles said. "If you can allow yourself adequate time to stop. You never know what the vehicle ahead of you might encounter."

While he doesn't hesitate to take the highway, he is aware there is a small percentage of motorists not paying attention, and stopped traffic gives him pause.

"Is this going to be the one time that that guy happens to be behind me?" Peebles said. "That's about the only time I really am concerned with 81, when we have an incident like that and you have to re-route traffic or stop traffic. Frankly, I'm on pins and needles until we can get it cleared. You kind of feel like the clock is ticking and it's just a matter of time before something major like this could happen. By the grace of God, most of the time we don't have anything this bad."

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