By Joe Beck
Rain and drivers traveling too fast for conditions were major factors in the massive and deadly traffic congestion that plagued interstate highways in Shenandoah and Warren counties Tuesday afternoon, a top state transportation official said Thursday.
Ricky Via, the Virginia Department of Transportation's regional traffic operations manager the Staunton-Culpeper region, said the chaos and danger that reigned on the roads had the attention of his agency.
"It seemed like a very dynamic, unique situation, and I think weather was a significant factor," Via said.
Via said thunderstorms rolling through the skies cut visibility and made pavement slippery. In the meantime, he said, some drivers failed to adjust to the changing conditions, thus contributing to the rash of crashes in which one driver died, several others received minor injuries and thousands were left idling in frustration while police, fire and rescue crews worked to clear the scenes.
One crash appeared to contribute to others in rapid succession. The most tragic example was a fatality on the westbound lane of I-66 about halfway between Front Royal and the split between I-66 and I-81. Thomas Edward Mitchell, 59, of Great Cacapo, W.Va. died at about 6:30 p.m. when his car ran into the back of a tractor-trailer, state police said.
State police said the tractor-trailer was at the end of a long line traffic bogged down from the earlier crashes.
The first two major crashes of the afternoon were also linked. State police said a crash just south of a bridge over Cedar Creek slowed southbound traffic on I-81 and led to a tractor-trailer striking the rear of two other tractor-trailers. The tractor-trailer that struck the vehicles ahead of it veered up and over a guardrail and ended up with its cab hanging over the side of the bridge.
The driver of the tractor-trailer that went over the guardrail received a ticket for following too closely, state police said.
He said a follow-up meeting is planned by VDOT and any interested first responders from agencies in the affected area to review what happened and consider whether additional steps are needed.
The crashes were concentrated within a few miles north and south and east of the split between I-66 and I-81 near Strasburg.
VDOT has studied the area before in response to safety worries and initiated several projects designed to reduce the risk of accidents, said Donald Logan, acting area traffic engineer.
Logan said the agency responded to increased traffic safety concerns by launching several improvement projects. Some have been completed and others continue today.
They include: widening lines marking the edge of the pavement from six inches to eight inches to increase visibility; replacing markers designed to be illuminated by approaching headlights at nighttime; replacing deficient guardrails; and installing rumble strips.