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 firstname.lastname@example.org