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VDOT: I-81 warning signs properly placed

By Joe Beck

A state transportation official Tuesday defended his agency against criticism that it failed to provide signs warning motorists of a construction site linked to an accident that killed two people on Interstate 81 in Frederick County on Friday night.

Edwin Carter, assistant administrator for VDOT's Edinburg residency, said the signage in place around the construction site near Kernstown followed nationally recognized standards established by the Federal Highway Administration.

"The signage did conform to what's in the traffic control manual," Carter said, adding that placement of signs depends on the type of road, construction activity, signs and how far the signs are spaced apart.

Carter was responding to criticism from Harry Hamilton Jr., a Winchester man credited with rescuing one accident victim from the wreckage of an SUV moments before it burned completely. Hamilton said the area around the accident scene lacked signs warning motorists they were approaching a construction site.

The vehicle that burned up, a 1998 Jeep Cherokee, was struck from behind by a tractor-trailer truck that barreled into its rear end, according to state police. The Jeep was the last vehicle in a line of cars backed up from the construction site on I-81.

Carter said a road crew was working at the site and had closed the right lane about an hour before the accident at 8 p.m. He said a VDOT employee assigned to monitor the crew reported finding a message board when he arrived at the accident scene.

"When our man arrived at the accident scene, the message board was up and lit," Carter said.

Carter said he was still waiting to receive a state police report before making a final determination whether his agency could have done more to prevent the accident.

In another development, a lawyer representing the estate of a woman who died with her husband and two children in another vehicle fire in Frederick County said he saw similarities between his case and Friday night's fatalities.

James D. Hundley of Richmond said both accidents involved a Jeep Cherokee with a rear-mounted gas tank that ruptured after being struck from behind.

"Jeep has a gas tank that is behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, so you're very exposed." Hundley said, adding that most vehicles are designed with gas tanks in front of the rear axle.

Hundley, representing the estate of Amanda Roe, has identified Chrysler as one of the defendants in a lawsuit seeking $25 million. A 10-day jury trial in Frederick County Circuit Court is scheduled for August.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration launched an investigation in June into Jeep Cherokees spanning model years 1993 to 2004. The Cherokee involved in the accident Friday night was a 1998 model and the one cited in the Roe lawsuit is a 1994 model.

In a written summary of its reasons for the investigation, the NHTSA cited data showing much higher rates of "rear-impact-related tank failures and vehicle fires" in Jeep Cherokees than non-Jeep SUVs.

The agency also noted a high rate of "rear-impact, fatal fire crashes for Jeep products."

The Jeep models involved in the investigation could be subject to recall if their gas tank and fuel system design is confirmed as defective.

The investigation was spurred by a petition from the Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit safety advocacy organization. The center commissioned tests comparing the Jeep Cherokee's vulnerability to gas tank ruptures to comparable SUVs. The center said it found the Cherokee to be a much greater hazard to its occupants.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com


I-81 is a racetrack of speeding 18-wheelers trying to keep up with speeding 4-wheelers. What could go wrong here?

I drove on that segment of I-81 maybe 45 minutes before the fatal accident. I recall seeing an illuminated sign before reaching Exit 310, the Route 37 - Kernstown exit that warned the right lane was closed ahead. I don't recall the sign saying how far ahead and I don't remember seeing any more signs after the first one, but perhaps that was because I was in panic mode worrying about being rear-ended by the bald guy in the gray Nissan on my bumper.

Heavy Friday traffic was flowing at 75 mph past Exit 310. Driving in the left lane, I came to vehicles stopped in the right lane approximately one half mile after Route 37 at Opequon Creek bridge, the left lane was still moving quite briskly (35 to 40 mph - this was where I began worrying about that Nissan) but it too came to a complete stop about 1 1/2 miles before coming in sight of the Stevens City exit 307. At that point, some impatient motorists were driving on the shoulder to reach Exit 307. Once I had inched near the off ramp at Exit 307 I could see the tail lights of stopped traffic far ahead in the distance so I decided to get off I-81 at Exit 307, the Stevens City exit, to take Route 11 south.

Was the road construction at that time of night a continuation of work begun that morning?

Or was the road work started at night to minimize obstruction of traffic flow? Southbound traffic was stopped from near the truck scale back to Exit 310, a distance of about 8 miles, on the evening of heaviest night time traffic, Friday rush hour. What could go wrong with this decision?

What prevented VDOT doing the work on, say, a Wednesday night, when traffic volume would be much less? Why not do night work only after midnight?

Are VDOT officials saying putting up appropriate signage is a blank check to do roadwork at night without considering any other factors? Does this make sense to you?

The problem with the work area was not the signs, it was lack of lights for safety. I, and others, were talking about this job before the accident happened. There were a lot of close calls that each individual was talking about. The lighting DOES NOT outline the work area good enough and it is dangerous.


There were alot of contributing factors, one every time there is construction on 81, nine times out of ten there is a accident, and usually there is a tractor trailor involved, so why would they do construction on a Fridat evening and a holiday weekend at that when most people are going out of town or in this case a four day weekend for that young man in college, and then you have people raceing down 81, when the speed limit was 55 they go 65 so they raise it again so most can go over by ten miles, and i am terrified of 81 cause you have to go with the flow of traffric if you dont want to be run over, if people including truckers are in that much of a hurry to get down the road leave earlier, and i agree light the area up and dont start till later in the nigth and never on a holiday weekend and here's a thought bring the speed limit back to a reasonable number

I agree the speed limit is to high for the area In my opinion it should be 60 from winchester to south of Tom Brook

Please remember it was Todd Gilbert who fought so hard to get the speed limit raised on 81. He said , " People will be traveling faster so they will be on the road less time, so there will be fewer accidents." It did not make sense then and it doesn't now. Many people opposed raising the speed limit on 81, they did it anyway. Please remember the lives lost when you vote. Our saftey on the highways should be a top priority. Stop wasting taxpayer money. If more police and more warning signals are needed it should be done. Our lives depend on it. Also to the police: Stop sitting in the grass in the middle, Give some tickets!

This was horrible and my heartfelt condolences to the victims and survivors. Our roadways are hugely challenging in this area. I wasn't there but I'm reading blame being meted out to VDOT (not saying traffic warnings were not a factor). But, in my life-experience the bottom line is all the signs and lights in the world make little difference in alleviating the more insidious culprits/factors of distracted driving, following too closely and not allowing sufficient time and space for slowing and stopping. In other words, a [responsible] driver adjusts for the factors and circumstances. Here's a news flash for many! A vehicle traveling at 60mph is covering 88' per second! It takes at least 3 secs for most humans to perceive, react and then brake. Do some calculations and you'll be amazed at how far you've traveled when slowing down at speeds of even 30.

If the 'sign' is, let's say, 3 miles from the construction zone and traffic backs up for 4 miles, NO wander they don't see the sign before there is an accident. VDOT doesn't not consistently move their signs as traffic either increases or decreases.
It's up to drivers to be alert of traffic conditions. Sorry but it's true. STAY ALERT when you are driving.

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