By Sally Voth -- email@example.com
The deadly tractor-trailer crashes on the length of Interstate 81 between Woodstock and Strasburg in recent months have caught the attention of Virginia Department of Transportation officials.
"We're watching this section of roadway," said Garrett Moore, VDOT's Staunton District administrator.
Moore recently sat down with several other VDOT officials for a conference call to discuss the three tractor-trailer crashes that have caused eight deaths on the short stretch of highway since November.
"That's one [area] we're watching, but I would not say in this location -- and we will look at the next accident report -- that we have a clear cause and effect," Moore said. "This one, unlike some of the other locations, there hasn't been a clear something we can [fix] for a few hundred thousand or a few million dollars. I think we will take a look with what's happened with these most recent crashes, too."
He noted that I-81 south between the Mt. Jackson and Shenandoah Caverns exits had been experiencing crashes in the curve near Merillat, leading VDOT to put chevrons on the guardrails and bank the curve higher several years ago.
When there are worrisome spots on the highway, VDOT employees will look at the crash history and drive along the road to try to find out what's happening and what's affecting drivers' reactions, Moore said.
The highway between the Toms Brook and Strasburg interchanges was repaved in 2006, he said.
"Before we repaved it, we had a number of [crashes] in there too, and we thought that doing that and with the improved markings it might help out," Moore said. "Four years ago, we thought it would help us in [lowering the crash rate]. It looked like the crashes there were potentially slowing down."
A standard heavy-use asphalt mix that has been widely used on I-81 was laid down on the stretch of highway, Moore said. Friction testing showed it to be in the normal range, he said.
When a tractor-trailer slammed into the Honda carrying brothers Holt and Stone Weeks -- who were in a traffic backup from one of several other crashes involving tractor-trailers that day and early the next morning -- on July 23, sending it into the back of another tractor-trailer and igniting an inferno, a I-81 traffic message board 10 miles south of the scene was already alerting drivers to the danger ahead, according to Matt Shiley, regional VDOT traffic engineer.
The message told motorists I-81 was closed 15 miles ahead and to get off the highway in Strasburg, he said.
Every year, VDOT's Staunton District identifies the top 10 safety issues on the interstates and primary roads, Moore said.
"Our goal is to actually be kind of proactive," he said. "We're very cautious on the cause and effect because ... we want to make sure that we're getting the right fix."
VDOT wants to make sure the money to alleviate the problem is going to the right section of road with the best chance of reducing fatalities, Moore said.
"We really take it seriously," he said. "I track our fatality numbers just about every day. This one's a tough spot. It's a tough area."
Aside from truck climbing lanes being added to I-81 in a couple of counties south of the region, there is no widening of the highway in VDOT's six-year plan, Moore said.
"There's no funds to do that," he said. "There's nothing on the horizon. That doesn't mean we're giving up. We're doing targeted spot improvements where we believe we've determined a cause and effect."
The idea of having lower speed limits for tractor-trailers on the interstate isn't being considered, Shiley said.
"Speed differentials can cause a problem where you have vehicles traveling at different rates of speed," he said. "That practice was done away with."
And, while the rest stop south of New Market was shut down two days before the Holt brothers' deaths, the one on the north side -- the direction the tractor-trailer driver who hit them came from -- was open, Moore said.
"It's my understanding it had more truck parking spaces made available there," he said. "Kind of hard to make the argument" that the rest area closures throughout the state were a factor in the crash, he added.
It's also important for drivers to take responsibility for their actions, and VDOT has issued a safety challenge, said public relations manager Sandy Myers.
"[It consists of] five simple behaviors that if everybody did those, we feel it would make a great impact on the safety of the roadway," she said. "We're still watching the roadways, but driver behavior is so critical to everybody out there."
The challenge asks that drivers wear seat belts; do away with distracting behavior, such as eating, reading and talking and driving; share the road with others, including people on bikes and on foot; not drive drunk; and don't speed, according to VDOT's Web site.