Interstate 81 runs from central Tennessee to the Canadian border, offering picturesque views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains as it winds through Virginia. Drivers, however, report nerves and fear because of the incredible number of tractor-trailers on I-81.
The Virginia Department of Transportation reports that trucks account for one of every four vehicles on I-81, in some stretches making up nearly half of the vehicles on the highway. That’s the highest ratio on any major Virginia highway and well above what I-81 was designed to carry.
In Virginia, the more heavily traveled I-95 bears more crashes – almost twice as many as I-81 between 2003 and 2007 – but the fatality rate for crashes on I-81 is nearly double that of I-95. Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, noted that a car surrounded by tractor-trailers is likely going to be the “jelly in the sandwich” if something goes wrong.
Last week, on a 15-mile stretch of I-81 near I-66, four crashes occurred in less than ten hours between Thursday evening and Friday morning. They involved nine tractor-trailers and two passenger vehicles, leaving two dead and several injured. The first crash occurred around 7:20 PM, when a truck overturned in the median, spilling its load of watermelons and creating a jam that backed up for miles. Traffic was still barely moving after 10 PM when brothers Stone and William Weeks drove through in their Honda Civic. A tractor-trailer rammed their car from behind, forcing it underneath the truck in front of it and starting a fire that killed both brothers. Reporter Darryl Woodson, editor of the Lexington News-Gazette, says that his paper doesn’t even try to cover all the interstate wrecks because the incidents are so frequent.
Interstate 81 is popular among truckers because it is a north-south alternative to I-95 that avoids tolls and bypasses traffic around major cities. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, the highway carries even more truckers ferrying goods from the border into U.S. markets. However, tourists exploring the Shenandoah Valley use I-81 and one-third of the state’s college students use the corridor to access James Madison University and Virginia Tech.
During the last decade, Virginia transportation officials considered building a parallel highway for trucks only. The idea was discarded after officials determined that it would create space for trucks but wouldn’t ease congestion or other vehicles. More recently, officials looked at widening the interstate from two lanes to four, but that is unlikely to happen with the state in financial crisis and tolls considered politically undesirable. I-81 program manager for Virginia’s Transportation Department Fred Altizer Jr. stated that nothing will happen because there is no revenue to support it.
Environmental groups have lobbied unsuccessfully for more investment in rail, arguing that it is a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to keep trucks off the road. In the meantime, I-81 traffic has tripled in the past two decades in the Winchester and Roanoke regions. Trucks slow dramatically on inclines then barrel down after reaching the crest of the hill, often tailgating smaller vehicles in front of them.
Truckers report that other drivers often don’t give them enough room and are unaware that a tractor-trailer can require the length of a football field to stop. One truck driver said that he would much rather be surrounded by trucks driven by professionals than cars whose drivers seem oblivious to the dangers of sharing the road with tractor-trailers.
This writer has personal experience with I-81, having driven it for nearly 30 years, including from Tennessee all the way to Watertown, New York where I was stationed with the 10th Mountain Division in the late 1980’s. Interstate 81 has definitely gotten worse (as far as safety) in the past 10-15 years in Virginia, and I think that a lane expansion will have to be done sometime in the next 10 years. If not, it will become either a parking lot for tractor trailers, or just too risky to travel in a passenger car – or both. I hope the money is found to widen it to at least 3 lanes running north and south. This is an important infrastructure project not only for Virginia, but for the country, because this Interstate is important for the nation’s commerce, and, perhaps, even national security. I hope that our future governors and elected representatives will take this project on with a strong commitment.